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WHEN I was a boy, stories of the weird and wonderful, of the mysterious and marvellous, always had a great attraction for my young imagination, so much so that whenever my supply of printed narratives of the kind ran short, I used to supplement the deficiency by thinking some out for myself. Then I began to relate them to my schoolfellows, who received them with so much approval that, in the end, I became a sort of champion "maker-up" of tales to the school.
Thus I may fairly say that I have gone through a kind of apprenticeship for the vocation of writer of fiction for boys. This fact it is which has inspired the hope that my present more matured imaginative inventions may be found not less acceptable, amongst a wider circle, than were my earlier fanciful flights to my schoolfellows. If this should be the case, then the results will be mutually agreeable and satisfactory, and will lend encouragement to further effort in the same direction.
I would, however, wish to warn those who have a liking for fiction of the "penny dreadful," or "blood-and-thunder" order, that they will not find anything in my work to gratify their taste; nor will they find the dialogue besprinkled with specimens of the latest slang of the "gutter snipe" and the precocious "street Arab." I am firmly of opinion that it should be possible for a writer of fair imagination to be able to hold the attention, and satisfy the legitimate craving for entertainment, of the youthful mind, without including in his work anything of an unwholesome or doubtful character.
On the other hand, be it here said, I am not of those who consider it imperative to mix up "little sermons," or moral platitudes, with stories written for a boy's leisure hours.
The world upon which we live is an inexhaustible storehouse of wonders, of which we may be sure that only comparatively a few have yet been revealed to us. There are more, far more, which are still hidden, and which are being slowly brought to light by the progress of modern scientific discovery, the ever-widening field of modern research, and the extension of modern travel and exploration. The imaginative mind which cares to gather up a few of the newest facts, and, travelling beyond them, carry their application a little farther, by what may be termed a speculative or scientific, rather than a poetic, licence, will find plenty of ideas and suggestions for the weaving of endless fanciful romances, which may be made to rival the old Arabian Nights' Entertainment for marvels and fascinating interest.
In the present story I have but chosen one such idea from the many which thus offer themselves. It rests upon the supposed discovery of a metal with one or two new properties—certain novel attributes. Such a discovery being once assumed as a scientific possibility, a boundless field immediately opens to the imaginative mind or the speculative fancy, as to the situations, adventures, and new experiences it may be plausibly supposed to lead to. What the outcome, as here given, may be worth in the way of an entertaining story, and how far I may have succeeded in carrying out the idea to the satisfaction of the readers for whom I have written, it is, of course, for them to judge.
If, however, as I venture to hope, they find the effort to their liking, then I shall have the additional satisfaction of feeling that their pleasure has been wholly of an innocent character, and that they may even derive some profit from the perusal. I do not, as I have already hinted, believe in "writing in" moral lectures "between the lines" of a boy's story; but I do believe it may be possible to entertain him in such a manner as to open his eyes to the vastness, the grandeur, of the works of the Great Creator, which surround him in multitudinous forms on all sides. I would like to suggest to him, to impress him with the conviction that, even as "there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it," so there are as great wonders to be discovered, as marvellous secrets to be wrested from Nature, as any yet known to our limited intelligence, and that, quite possibly, he may be one of those destined to discover them.
In this way I would wish to arouse in him a sense of the illimitable possibilities of the world, of the universes, around him, and to stimulate in his mind that desire for knowledge, and interest in the boundless mysteries of the unknown, which are the first steps in the making of the world's greatest scientists—chemists, engineers, electricians, naturalists, zoologists, botanists, explorers, archaeologists.
To succeed in the aims thus indicated, it may be claimed, is to place the writing of stories for boys upon a plane such as no writer needs be ashamed of.
I should like to say more in connexion with this view, but I forbear, lest I should arouse a lurking suspicion in the minds of my young readers that I am more anxious to instruct than to entertain. I can assure them that that is by no means the case, as indeed I think those who accompany me, in the following pages, into the Realms of Phantasy, will quickly discover for themselves.
"WELL, Staunton, here we are at the appointed place, and punctual to time! Now, at last, I suppose I shall know the meaning of my friend Wilfrid Moray's mysterious message, and why he should have chosen this out-of-the-way spot for our meeting instead of the railway station or his own home."
So spoke Harry Burnham, a good-looking, open-faced English youth, who had not so very long since put his schooldays behind him, and entered upon the threshold of that Tom Tiddler's Ground—the life of the "grown-ups."
His companion was one Sam Staunton by name, a tall, hardy, muscular man of middle age, a fine specimen of a faithful servitor of the good old-fashioned type.
"Lobsters and leeches!" exclaimed the man, gazing round him with evident surprise. "What a rum consultin' shop to hold yer palaver in! Is this yer' a dry dock we're to unload in, I wonder?"
Sam was carrying a heavy portmanteau, and the suggestion of unloading was a welcome one, for it was a hot summer's day.
"This," said Harry, with a smile, "is an old shepherd's hut, and the dry dock, as you term it, was once a walled-in sheepfold—all now more or less in ruins, as you can see." He took a letter from his pocket, and glanced at it. "This is the ruined hut named in Wilfrid Moray's letter, right enough; but he does not seem to be here, nor can I make out any sign of him, though one can see for a mile or two all round."
"Marlinespikes an' pill-boxes! but it be hot, Master Harry!" Sam muttered. He put down the portmanteau, and drew out an old coloured handkerchief, which he applied to his brows; then he continued, during intervals of the mopping process: "Will ye come to anchor 'ere an' wait for our convoy, or put on sail and make for Mr. Moray's house? 'Tain't much farther on, be it? Does the perscripsh'n ye hold in yer hand give d'rections for us in case the writer bean't 'ere to give us our sailin' orders?"
Sam Staunton was an old sailor, and had sailed much in "furrin parts." But he had also, at one time, been in the service of a country apothecary, and his speech savoured of both occupations—a quaint jargon it then became, reminiscent partly of the sea and partly of the chemist's shop, with, perhaps, a phrase or two from the doctor's consulting-room thrown in.
Harry glanced about him again before replying. The two were standing upon a ridge of the South Downs. Before them, half a mile or so away, was the shore of the English Channel, where ships and steamers could he seen going to and fro. All around in other directions nothing was to be discerned but a wide expanse of undulating greensward, broken in a few places by clumps of trees.
"I don't know whether to go on or not, Sam," Harry presently said. "Certainly my friend Wilfrid is not here, and——"
"Bless you, bless you, my children!" said a voice behind them. They both turned sharply round, to find themselves confronted by a strange and somewhat startling apparition.
Above the top of the wall furthest from them they saw a young fellow, Harry's senior by perhaps three or four years, who was looking down upon them with smiling face and eyes twinkling with merriment. The odd thing was that he seemed to be standing upon nothing in particular. His feet were two or three feet clear of the wall, and he was slowly rising into the air, without any sign of the means by which the marvel was accomplished.
In his hands he held a coil of stout cord, one end of which seemed to be fastened below the level of the wall. Otherwise there was absolutely nothing to form any connecting link between his body and the earth.
Slowly he continued to float upwards, the rope running through his hand as he ascended, and now he was five, six—soon ten feet above the wall.
"Great Scott!" Harry burst out, and then stood looking on, in ever-increasing wonder and surprise.
"Mermaids and oysters!" murmured Staunton, and he, too, remained with open mouth and staring eyes, a very picture of speechless, helpless amazement. As honest Sam was always wont to declare that he regarded the particular things he had thus named as two of the greatest wonders of creation, his utterance of the words at this precise moment sufficiently indicated the extreme state of "obfustication" to which he felt himself reduced.
Still the apparition rose steadily into the air until the coil of rope had all run out, when he remained quiescent at the end of the cord which, it could now be seen, was attached to his waist. There was a slight breeze, and it swayed him gently to and fro like a captive balloon anchored by a rope-There was little in the attire or equipment of this new kind of aeronaut to explain his thus remaining poised between heaven and earth. He was dressed in an ordinary tweed suit and carried with him nothing out of the common save the cord round his waist.
"Bless you, my children," said the voice again, and the aerial gentleman spread his hands out benignantly. "You did me an injustice in thinking that I was late for our appointment."
Then Harry found his tongue.
"Wilfrid! Wilfrid!" he gasped. "What in the world is the meaning of this? How is it done? What keeps you up there like that? Have you some new kind of balloon arrangement under your clothes?"
"Science, my dear Harry, is making great strides now-a-days, as doubtless you are aware, and you ought to know better than to show such surprise at what is merely a new scientific discovery. Do you not remember the mysterious 'Black Nugget' about which I wrote to you in my letters?"
"Yes, yes; I remember that," Harry returned impatiently. "But what has that to do with it? How does it explain this performance of yours? You throw the fairies who float into the air in the transformation scenes at the pantomime quite into the shade. Jupiter! What a success you would be as a new kind of fairy!"
Wilfrid looked a little hurt.
"Science has nothing to do with fairies," he replied, disdainfully. Meantime, Harry was recovering from his sense of bewilderment. He was now determined to master his astonishment and show that he could regard even such a development of science as this with sang froid. "Doesn't it seem funny?" he asked. "Don't you feel us if you wanted something to stand on?"
"H'm, well, yes; it does feel a little awkward at first—or did—for I have got a bit used to it now. What are you looking for?"
"I was just taking a look round to make sure there is no policeman in sight."
"He might want to take you up for having no visible means of support."
"Take me down would be a more correct term, I should say. Hallo!"
Wilfrid uttered this last exclamation in a tone of alarm, as he was conscious of a slight jerk. Then his expression turned to one of horror, as he realized that the rickety old wooden rail to which he had fastened the rope had given way, and he was now sailing up into the air and towards the sea.
"Quick, Harry, quick!" he cried, in urgent accents. "The rope has got loose! Run and catch hold of it before it gets out of your reach!"
Harry, grasping the situation, made a dash inside the walls of the fold, but only in time to see the end of the rope slowly ascending above the opposite wall.
"Get up on the roof of the hut, Harry; it will pass over there!" Wilfrid shouted. "Quick, for your life!"
Harry needed no urging. He climbed onto the wall, and from there scrambled up the sloping roof, at imminent risk of falling through, for the rafters were broken in some places, and half rotted through in others. He reached the top, and stood up, stretching out his arms in the hope of catching the rope as it came past. Slowly it came nearer and nearer; but as it moved across, it also went higher, until it became very doubtful whether the rescuer would be able to touch it. Just then the crumbling wall gave way beneath him, and he felt himself falling; but at the same moment the rope came within reach, and he made a desperate clutch at it. There was a big knot at the end which enabled him to get a good hold, and the next moment he was dangling in the air.
Instead, however, of a nasty fall, as he had expected, he found himself swinging round and round ten or twelve feet above the ground, with no possible means, as far as he could see, of getting either himself, or his chum safely back to earth again. His extra weight on the rope seemed to be of no account so far as dragging them down was concerned. It barely sufficed to keep the daring aeronaut above him from soaring up into the skies; indeed, it was not sufficient even for that purpose, for they were both still slowly rising.
Meanwhile they were drifting seawards, while Staunton, beside himself with alarm and excitement, wildly followed below, shouting out all sorts of confused directions and suggestions.
"Don't let go, Harry! For your life don't let go!" Wilfrid cried. "Try to climb up on to the knot. You will got a better hold there!"
This, Harry, who was a good gymnast, managed to do. Then he looked about him, as the rope twisted him round and round.
There was one hope for them, and only one. Right in front, as yet at some distance, stood a group of high trees. If the breeze kept them straight upon their present course they would probably drift against these trees; but the wind might shift, and the least deviation would cause them to miss them altogether; or, again, they might by then have risen too high, and so pass over the tops.
The next five minutes was a critical, anxious time. Harry afterwards declared that they were the longest he had ever known in his life. Then the wind freshened and they travelled faster, and almost suddenly, as it seemed, Harry found himself crashing into the tree-tops.
"Hold on like a bulldog, Harry!" yelled Wilfrid, from the upper air. "Don't let go the rope till you have made it fast to a good, strong bough!"
"Stick to it like sticking plaster, an' lash yerself to the mast of the tree!" shouted Sam from below.
Harry managed to fasten the cord, and then took a slight rest; for he was almost exhausted from hanging on to his very insecure perch. Moreover, the rope had cut his hands, and the branches of the tree had scratched him and torn his clothes. Meanwhile Staunton commenced climbing to his assistance.
It does not usually take an old sailor long to scramble up a tree, and in a minute or two more Harry found Sam beside him, ready to help in the task of dragging Wilfrid down into their company.
After a good deal of trouble, and one or two fresh alarms, the three stood once more upon the ground—if indeed, Wilfrid could be said to stand.
As a matter of fact, his companions found considerable difficulty in keeping him there, for each time they pulled him down he evinced an embarrassing propensity to bob up again.
"You must carry me somehow back to the sheepfold!" he said between gasps.
He was out of breath with his efforts to keep near the ground, and at times it almost seemed as though he were going to fly off again, and drag both his rescuers with him.
Staunton's weight, however, told in the end, and the ruined hut was reached. Wilfrid here picked up off the ground a number of heavy pieces of lead, which he proceeded to bestow about his person in quite an extraordinary number of cunningly-arranged pockets.
Finally, he put on a pair of clumsy-looking overboots, which, as the others quickly discovered, had thick soles of solid lead. Then, and not till then, he was able to walk about alone, and safely dispense with assistance,
"You see the idea?" he observed. "I have to carry all these as counter-weights, and very glad I am to feel myself 'a person of some weight in the world,' once more. Great snakes! But that was a narrow squeak! If you had missed the rope I should have 'syled awye,' as a song of the day has it, right out over the sea, and then—then to goodness knows where!"
"Up to the moon, I should say," Harry put in. "However, all's well that ends well. And now explain to me this riddle. I am dying to know what it all means."
"I had intended," was the answer, "to make you wait till we had reached home, and you had had some lunch. However, since you are so impatient, let us sit down and make ourselves as comfortable as possible on this bit of broken wall, while I tell you the story. Meantime, Staunton can go on with your portmanteau, and tell them we are coming presently."
"AS I have already told you," Wilfrid commenced, "this marvel, as it seems to you, is closely connected with the 'Black Nugget' which we brought back with us from my good pater's last expedition into the interior of South America."
By his "pater," Wilfrid meant Professor Moray—a savant well known in scientific circles—whose adopted son he was.
For Wilfrid was an orphan born in Demerara, and reared partly there and partly in England, by the professor as his adopted son. In England he had gone to the same school as Harry, to whom he had taken a great liking, and whom, being the elder, he had often helped and protected.
This friendship had continued after they had left school, and during Wilfrid's absence with the professor upon the expedition referred to the two had kept up a correspondence, which had, however, owing to the travellers' uncertain movements, been somewhat intermittent.
"I've been anxiously waiting for this meeting," said Harry, whose home was upon the other side of London, "to hear more of your adventures, for some of your letters went astray, and never reached me. And that, I suppose, is why I don't know so much about this 'nugget' as you appear to assume. In fact, I may say I know nothing beyond remembering that you have alluded to it several times. What is it? What is it like? What is it made of?"
Wilfrid laughed. "A good many questions to answer all in a breath!" he said. "Know, then, that the Black Nugget, as we called it, was—I say was, because it no longer exists in that form—a conglomerate mass of crude ores and various minerals. It was egg-shaped, and measured roughly about three feet one way by two feet the other. In colour it varied in different parts from a dull grey or deep green to black."/p>
"Was there any gold in it?"
"None; but something far more precious, as you will hear. As regards weight, you would have thought, judging by its appearance, that it was very heavy. You would have been ready to bet that it was more than any ordinary man could lift. Instead of that, it was as light as though it had been a piece of sponge."
Harry looked up sharply. "What is the explanation of that?" he asked,
"I am coming to it. But first let me tell you where and how we obtained it. In the country which lies at the back of British Guiana and Venezuela there are vast tracts of the wildest possible description which, so far as is known, have never been explored by a white man. If you look at a good map of South America you can see where this region lies, for it is very extensive, comprising, indeed, something like a million square miles."
"Jiminy! What visions of possible new discoveries such a fact raises in one's mind!"
"You are right, Harry. Well, we were just on the margin of this region when we met with the nugget. And its original home—the quarry, or mine, or whatever it is, from which it was taken—lies hidden somewhere in that unexplored tract."
"I see. But how, then, did you get hold of it?"
"It was given to me—to me, you understand, not to the professor—by an Indian chief named Inanda, who has known me since I was a baby He declared that the stone, as he called it, had magical properties; and so, in truth, in a sense, we have since discovered."
"You knew nothing—could guess nothing—then, I suppose, of its real nature and properties?"
"No. Beyond the fact that its extreme lightness seemed unaccountable, and greatly piqued our curiosity, we were quite in the dark, and hardly even felt much interest. Had it been as heavy as it looked, we might quite possibly have never troubled to bring it home, for the question of transport is a difficult one out there, and a bulky, awkward mass like that would have been a serious encumbrance if it had been weighty as well. As it was, I managed to hang on to it till we got down to the coast, and there we had a packing case made for it, boxed it up, and labelled and addressed it. Then we almost forgot its existence till we arrived in England.
"At Southampton the package excited the mistrust of a Custom House officer. He had it opened, pulled out the nugget, and sniffed at it suspiciously. It was so very light that he thought it must be hollow, and if hollow, might it not be an artfully-made box in which to smuggle lace or loose tobacco? So he examined it here, tapped it there, twisted and turned it about, and finally, finding no visible means of opening it, turned to the professor and demanded that it should be opened for his inspection. As the pater only laughed at such an absurd request, the officer got wild and swore he would break it open. And this he actually proceeded to attempt by striking it with a hammer. And then—what do you think happened?"
"Can't say," Harry answered, in a tone full of interest. "He broke a piece off, perhaps."
"Just what occurred. But what do you suppose became of the piece?"
"Hit him on the nose, maybe."
"Yes, it flew up, and very nearly, as you suggest, struck him in the face. However, he started back in time, and the lump just missed, and, continuing its course, went right through a skylight of the shed in which this little scene took place, sending showers of broken glass down over the astonished officer, and finally disappeared into the clouds."
"Into the clouds?" Harry repeated the words incredulously.
"Into the clouds. Away it went—up, up, up,—till it was lost to sight. And it never came down—was never seen again."
"But how can that be? What does it mean?"
"It meant, if any one could have read the riddle just then—it meant the secret of this new, wonderful form of radium—for such it is—a metal which, when quite free and unattached to anything heavier, flies away from the earth instead of being attracted to it."
"Radium, did you say—a form of radium? The new metal about which so many extraordinary things are being told?"
"Precisely—radium. Radium combined, in this case, not with pitchblende, or uranium, but with some hitherto unknown, and, as yet, undeterminable substance, which seems to give it properties even more puzzling, more remarkable than anything previously discovered."
"Ah! That reminds me of what a friend of my father was saying the other night at our house. He, like the professor, is one of your scientific bigwigs, and knows all about it, and I remember him declaring that we seem to be on the eve of great events in the world of science. Almost every week, now, he said, seems to bring the announcement of some new discovery in connection with radium; and there is a growing feeling, he added, amongst the great men of the day, that by its means yet other metals or elements will be shortly brought to light which will throw even radium itself, as it were, into the background!"
"Well, they're not far out, evidently, for here is one of the coming wonders. The professor is jubilant about it, as you may suppose. But he wishes to keep it a secret until he knows more about it himself. In order to do that, however, it is necessary to ascertain where it really comes from, what further quantities of it are probably in existence, and so on. And he deems it a matter of the first importance that we should return without delay to the region in which it seems to exist, and there start upon a systematic and exhaustive search for it. We are going, in short, upon a new prospecting expedition, but instead of being gold-seekers, or diamond-seekers, we shall be radium-seekers."
"A very good business, too," said Harry, "if there is really any of it out there. At present prices, I believe even a hundredweight would make you the richest people in the world. They say it is worth over a thousand million pounds a ton, or something of the sort, don't they? But what makes this particular form of it fly up into the air in the way you speak of?"
"Ah, that is just where the mystery of the thing comes in! I can tell you what it does, but the professor, with all his learning, is unable at present to explain how or why it does it. But it is certainly odd that the Indians who gave me the nugget had a very curious legend—a strange, fantastic bit of folklore—connected with it, according to which it fell, long ages ago, from the skies."
"From the skies?"
"Yes. Their legend is to the effect that upon the other side of the great forest which we saw, but did not enter, lies an immense lake or inland sea, with large islands, upon which are ancient cities, inhabited by strange peoples, some of whom are of a very warlike and ferocious character. Once upon a time, some of these people, it seems, offended the Great Spirit, who, to punish them, desolated their countries by raining down upon them fire from the skies. The very stars fell, so they say, and covered up large tracts with black ugly rocks, which remain to this day arid and bare, for nothing will grow upon them. The professor thinks there may be a certain sort of foundation for this legend. Perhaps, he says, a number of large meteorolites may have fallen in that region, and they might possibly have been composed of some substances which do not exist anywhere upon the earth itself, and with which, therefore, no one not living in that particular locality would be acquainted. Of course, this is only a theory, a suggestion——"
"Yes, yes, of course. Still, I suppose it is scientifically possible, if the professor says it is."
"Just so. Well, from that point of view, those meteorolites might quite possibly have contained radium, and the professor thinks it also scientifically possible that they may have contained some other metal or element which might have a greater affinity or attractive sympathy for some of the heavenly bodies than for the earth. Hence it would fly back whence it came were it not that it is kept here by its being in combination with other metals or minerals which come under the ordinary laws of gravitation. Or again, the professor thinks, this singular behaviour may be due to what one may, for want of a better expression, term anti-magnetic action. That is to say, just as a magnet exerts an attractive force over steel and will, in certain circumstances, attract to itself a piece of steel even against what we call the laws of gravity, so this metal may exercise a repulsive force; or the earth, as a whole, may, in obedience to some as yet unknown law, seek to repel it from contact with its surface.
"At any rate, there is some mysterious property or force which causes this form of radium—apparently a hard, close-grained heavy-looking mineral—to act as though lighter than the air, and to rise through it just as hydrogen gas does."
"Then it acts like a balloon?" Harry exclaimed.
Wilfrid nodded. "Yes; I have some strips of it sewn into a jacket under my clothes at this moment, with the result that I can float in the air when I choose, as you have seen."
Harry gave a long whistle.
"So that is the explanation of the puzzle, is it? Well, it's all very wonderful."
"Not more so, perhaps, than the telephone or the phonograph would have appeared to our grandfathers. It may be that some day we shall get as used to floating about in the air in this way as we are to-day to those discoveries. Now, a word or two more. The professor, as I have said, is jubilant over our discovery, but desires to keep it secret until we have a lot more of the material and he can launch it on the scientific and commercial world with a burst, as it were. He proposes to call it in part after himself—to call it 'Moray-radium.' This I have shortened, for convenience, into 'Moradium.'"
"I see. A good name, I should think."
"We have found, by the way, that radium in this form has no disagreeable effect upon the skin or flesh, as ordinary radium has. It does not cause sores or ulcers, but seems to be, on the contrary, soothing and healing in its influence when worn as I am wearing it now. It is strengthening and invigorating, too, as I can testify. Now, unfortunately, the professor is in a poor state of health just now, and cannot form one of this expedition, so I am going out with Dr. Vivian and Bennet, the old hunter and backwoodsman who went with us before. But the dear old doctor—well, you know how absent-minded he is! He is a bit of a slow-coach for a trip of this kind, so I expect the real leadership will practically devolve upon myself. Now, would you like to come with us?"
"I?" exclaimed Harry, with glistening eyes. "Oh, rather—that is, if father will but let me."
"I have enough 'Moravia' to make you a jacket similar to the one I am wearing, and that you shall have, if you like; and with the two I think we shall manage to astonish the natives out there pretty considerably. What do you think?"
Needless to say, Harry was delighted, and he was duly enrolled as one of the band of "radium-seekers "—a quest destined to lead them into adventures of so thrilling and amazing a character as to surpass their very wildest dreams.
For the rest, their final preparations were soon made, and a month later the little party were on board an outward-bound liner, well started upon the first stage of their eventful journey.
"WHAT? Our Indians going to strike, like the British workman when he gets discontented? That sounds funny, Dr. Vivian, doesn't it?"
"It places us in an awkward predicament, Harry. Here we are at the farthest place we reached before, when the professor was with us, and now we are face to face with the same difficulty. They refused to push on through the forest we are just entering. We had to turn back then. I am beginning to think we shall have to do the same now."
Dr. Vivian looked grave and disappointed. He knew the thought of failure would be a disagreeable one to his two young friends, whom he had accompanied thus far upon their adventurous journey, and he sympathized with them. But apart from his concern on their account, he had himself looked forward, with the enthusiasm of an experienced scientist, to the discoveries which they had anticipated in this hitherto unexplored country.
A keen naturalist was the good doctor, and a learned man in zoological and botanical lore. But he was apt to allow his thoughts to be so engrossed by scientific studies and speculations as to make him at times absent-minded and forgetful of more prosaic, everyday matters; hence, the active leadership of the expedition had devolved upon Wilfrid Moray—as, indeed, he had predicted would be the case in his preliminary talk with his chum, Harry Burnham.
But if not a brilliant, dashing leader, the worthy doctor was a staunch, good-humoured, kindly-disposed friend and companion, and the two youngsters loved and respected him.
The party had journeyed up from the coast of British Guiana, chiefly by river and canoe, until they had reached the borders of the wild, unknown hinterland into which no white man, so far as was known, had yet penetrated.
They were encamped just within a belt of forest of a more sombre, gloomy character even than anything they had yet passed through; and here the Indians, some thirty or so in number, who had hitherto accompanied them became discontented and troublesome. They were full of superstitious stories and beliefs about the mysterious country in front of them, and declared—as they had declared to Professor Moray a year ago upon the same spot—that they would not go any further.
"Well," said Harry, after a pause, "Wilfrid expected to have trouble, and has some scheme of his own for getting over it; but as he is away I won't say anything more just now. He will tell you about it himself when he returns. I dare say he will rejoin us to-day. In any case, he said we must halt here for a few days till we can get a good store of cassava to take with us."
"Cassava" is the one invariable food of the Indians in these parts, and without it the travellers could not proceed either forward or backward. So Wilfrid had gone upon a foraging expedition to try to get a supply from an Indian village known to lie about a day's journey from their line of march. He had taken with him his man Bennet, the most experienced white man of the party, and half a dozen Indians.
"Much will depend, he thinks," Harry went on, "upon whether he can come across the friendly chief of the Macusis, Inanda, who gave him the wonderful Black Nugget, you know. If he can see him, all may be well; but if he and his people should be away upon one of their hunting or fishing expeditions, we may have to wait on here indefinitely. But whether we have to wait or not, and whether the Indians go with us or we push on alone, I know one thing—we shall go on. Wilfrid will never turn back."
"A halt for a few days will not be disagreeable to me," the doctor observed. "It will give me an opportunity of overhauling my specimens and making sure that the white ants have not been busy amongst them."
Harry was silent a minute or two, and then he said:
"By the way, doctor, I had a little adventure this morning when out with Melsa, not far from here, about which I have not yet told you," Melsa was an Indian hunter to whom Harry had taken a liking, and with whom he had made many little incidental trips in search of game during their journey up from the coast.
"We crossed a high ridge," Harry continued, "and I suggested that Melsa should ascend one of the largest trees upon it in order to get a view of the surrounding country. He started up a tree, accordingly, and disappeared through some thick foliage, but had not been gone more than a minute when he returned in the greatest haste, with a very scared expression upon his face, and calling out 'Cramba! Cramba!' ran off as fast as his legs would carry him."
"Did he see a snake?" asked the doctor.
"No; something far worse than that, he declared, was the cause of his precipitate bolt. He solemnly averred that he saw a 'Cramba's nest.'"
"And what on earth may that be? I never heard the word before."
"He says there are wild men called Crambas, who hollow out a nest or den in the trunk of a tree, closing up the entrance with a sort of door cunningly made from the bark of the tree, and so artfully fitted that when shut only a very sharp eye can detect the crack around it. From this post of vantage they shoot at anything passing below, whether man or animal—for they are cannibals it seems, and will as soon make a meal off a human being as off a pig. They strike their prey down by means of a poisoned dart, which does not kill at once, but only paralyses the muscles. Then they drag off the body of the unfortunate victim—still alive and conscious, so it is said, but quite unable to move—to their nest, where, if they don't happen to be hungry at the moment, they stow it away in its dead-alive state till they want it. It's a gruesome sort of tale, and really, the way Melsa told it, and his evident sincerity, made me feel quite queer as I listened."
"As to the use of darts or arrows dipped in a poison which does not kill but only paralyses the muscles, that I know to be a fact," the doctor replied. "Some of the Indian tribes of the interior use them habitually when hunting, and I have often seen the surprising effects of the poison upon animals; but those tribes are not cannibals, nor do they live in trees, I think, with you, that it sounds a highly improbable story."
Just then a commotion amongst the Indians, who had been clustered together talking among themselves, indicated that something had occurred to divert their attention. It proved to be the return of a party of hunters. Slowly and despondently they now came into camp, bearing with them what seemed to be the dead body of one of their number.
"He bean't dead, sir," said Staunton earnestly, as the doctor bent over him.
"No, Staunton, I am glad to say you are quite right as to that; but it seems to me a long faint. We must see what we can do to revive him."
But the patient showed no sign of returning life. He lay stretched out just as he had been brought in, his eyes wide open, and staring straight before him.
After essaying several remedies, all of which proved ineffective, Dr. Vivian beckoned Harry aside.
"I must take you into my confidence, Harry," said he; "it is better that I should tell you plainly how matters stand. We were talking but a few minutes since of that terrible secret poison which paralyses without killing. Here, strangely enough, is a case in point. The poor Indian who is over there has been struck down by a poisoned weapon—probably merely a small dart, for I have found the wound, and it is a very small one."
"Then you think there may he some truth in the stories of the Indians about these woods being inhabited by Crambas, as they call them, after all?"
"H'm! Well, the whole affair has an ugly look. Still—By the way, did Staunton see this poor fellow's assailant clearly enough to make out what it was like?"
"I've been asking him as to that, and his replies are extraordinary. He declares it was a creature covered all over with hair, half ape, half human, as it were, and striped. Surely that must have been his excited fancy?"
"I don't know," the doctor gravely replied. "Dr. Anderson, in his book of travels in Central Africa, describes some hairy 'bushmen' he came across as being black and white, 'like zebras.' However, I must go back to my patient. I do not wish the Indians to get an inkling of what I have told you, or there may be a panic, and we may wake up to-morrow morning to find ourselves deserted."
"I understand, sir. I am going to take Staunton and go in the direction by which I expect Wilfrid will return. It is about the time he hoped to be back; and I trust we shall meet him."
"Very good; but do not venture far afield; and, seeing what has occurred, mind you keep a sharp look-out."
Harry and his companion started off together, Sam, still full of the adventure of the morning, muttering to himself as he went, and now and again breaking out into denunciations of the lurking, treacherous foe who had struck down the Indian. Harry thought it best to say nothing for the time being about what the doctor had told him, so that the old sailor was still somewhat in the dark as to what had actually occurred.
"Harpoons and lancets!" he spluttered, in one of his outbursts, "fancy my letting' such a land-pirate as that get off clear without givin' him a shot in his locker or a bolus t' pizen 'im!"
Soon Harry found that one of his feet was becoming painful. He had hurt it a day or two before, and it was now troubling him again. "Sam," he presently said, "I think I won't go any farther. My foot hurts me more than I thought it would. Do you go on to yonder ridge and see if you can make out any signs of our friends. If not, come back at once. I will wait here meantime."
Staunton was at first loth to leave his companion alone, but at last he went forward as directed, while Harry seated himself. Melsa's talk, and the events that had followed, had somehow made him feel uneasy in spite of himself. He could not help speculating as to whether some of these creatures, prowling around, passing silently and unseen among the dense foliage overhead, might account for certain ideas Melsa had avowed he entertained to the effect that the travellers were being shadowed by foes who did not show themselves. If so, why then——
What was that? Harry looked quickly round as a strange sound caught his ear—a sound between the angry hiss of a serpent and the growl of some savage animal. As he turned, he saw something in motion upon the trunk of a large tree standing about forty yards away. Then, to his amazement, a great mass of the bark fell forward, like a trap-door, and remained horizontal, forming a kind of platform twenty feet or so above the ground, and revealing a dark, spacious hollow in the trunk of the tree.
From out of this hollow there now appeared a horrible shape—an ape-like man, or a man-like ape, of such surpassing ugliness, and terrible menacing ferocity that the horrified spectator stood literally rooted to the ground with amazement, It was covered with shaggy hair, in alternate stripes of a deep chocolate brown and a dirty creamy white. Forehead it had none, the hair of the head coming right down to the eyebrows, while from its half-open upper jaws protruded two long, curved fangs. The creature stepped onto the platform, and stood there gazing into the forest as though listening for some distant sound. Behind him, in crouching positions, were three other similar creatures, one, which was gnawing a huge bone, seeming to be the mate of the other, while the remaining two were smaller, and were evidently their young.
Before Harry could recover from his first surprise at the sight of these beings, the one standing up turned his head and perceived him. It gave a blood-curdling, hissing scream, and the next moment the young fellow felt something strike him in the shoulder. It was a little dart which the being opposite had blown through a tube he held in his hand. The dart pierced Harry's clothing, and entered the flesh; but the pain was not great, and he caught hold of it, pulled it out, and threw it from him, and then raised the rifle he was carrying to take aim. But even as he did so a numbness came over him, his muscles seemed paralysed and refused to act, and he sank down, rolled over, and lay on the ground inert and helpless, though still perfectly conscious.
As he lay thus, his face towards his enemy, his eyes open, but quite unable to move so much as his little finger, his thoughts flashed back to the Indian he had left at the camp, and the doctor's statement that the poor fellow had been struck down by one of those poisoned darts which paralysed the muscles without destroying consciousness; and now he could feel but little doubt that this awful fate had overtaken himself. Then he saw his enemy descend from his perch, scrambling down the creepers which were twined round the tree. He walked deliberately towards his victim, over whom he stood, regarding him fixedly, with a terrifying savageness, and a sort of triumphant, hungry, leering snarl, such as might well have become a very demon. Harry stared back at him for a few moments in silent, helpless horror, and then a merciful unconsciousness came upon him, as he felt the frightful creature take him up in its hateful arms and carry him off up to its den.
With scarcely a perceptible effort, it climbed back to its platform, and disappeared with its burden into the dark hollow beyond, just as Wilfrid, followed by Staunton and several Indians, came into view a short distance away. Horror-stricken, they now stood with drawn, agonized faces gazing upon the scene, afraid to fire for fear of hitting their friend. Then the trapdoor silently closed, and nought was to be seen but the trunk of the tree upon which scarcely a trace could be detected of the cunningly devised opening of the awful den within.
NO words can give an idea of the horror and distress of Wilfrid and his companions as they looked on the fearful scene which has been narrated. So long as Harry and his uncanny-looking captor were in sight, the spectators had remained rigid and motionless, gazing straight before them as though spellbound, as indeed they were. And though one or two had made an involuntary motion, as if about to take aim at the monstrous apparition, the fear of hitting their friend caused them to hesitate; hence no shot had been fired, no attempt made at a rescue.
No sooner, however had the cunning trapdoor closed than the spell was broken, and Wilfrid, with a loud cry of rage, dashed madly forward in the direction of the tree.
But a strong grip was laid upon his shoulder, and a voice in his ear said:
"No, no, sir—not so! Don't try to follow him. That would mean pretty certain death to you and trouble for all of us. Patience, sir, for a moment. We must all take a hand in this."
"What do you mean by patience, Bennet?" Wilfrid cried, his voice trembling with emotion. "How can I be patient when I see my friend carried off before my eyes—and to such a fate? How shall I ever look his father in the face again if I meanly consider my own safety and remain here idle, while perhaps—Heavens, think, man—think what may be happening at this moment, while we stand staring here, idle and helpless!"
Bennet, the one who had thus stayed the young leader's first unselfish impulse, muttered some scarcely-heard reply. He was a fine figure of a man, over six feet in height—almost a giant, indeed, in proportions—with grizzled hair and beard, and keen, vivacious eyes. His face was lined and marked, and in it, and in his whole demeanour, one could road unmistakable signs of the sort of life he had led in those wild regions, and of the hardships and dangers to which he had become inured.
"I will take this upon myself, Mr. Wilfrid," he now said, with lips grimly set and sternly-knitted brows.
And he in his turn started towards the tree.
"Not while Sam Staunton stands by and looks on!" exclaimed that worthy, suddenly rushing after him. "It shall never be said I let another go to Mr. Harry's help before me!"
And he caught hold of Bennet and endeavoured to get in front. This the backwoodsman resented, and a struggle took place between the two. "Tweezers an' handspikes!" Sam spluttered, as he strove to push the other behind him. "Let me go after the lubber! Let me open a vein of the critter's anatomy! One dose'll cure him of his tricks! He'll never want another!"
But Wilfrid had by this time recovered his presence of mind. He now saw that none of them could do any good by such hasty tactics, and would only hurry on destruction. He stepped forward and laid a hand on each.
"Come, come!" he said, in a tone of quiet command. "Let us take counsel together, and, when we have decided what is best to be done, each of you shall have his place in the work. Let us ask Inanda. He may be able to help us in this difficulty."
Inanda was the Macusi chief, who was standing, silent and statuesque, in the background, stoically regarding the scene. He had come back with Wilfrid, and Staunton had met him shortly after leaving Harry. He was certainly a fine picture of dusky manhood, was this Indian—a handsome-looking savage, notwithstanding his paint and feathers and quaint dress.
To him Wilfrid now turned for a suggestion as to the best mode of attacking the lair in the tree, with the object of rescuing their friend if still possible, or, at least, of avenging him.
But before the besiegers could form their plans they were rendered unnecessary in a most unexpected manner. The trapdoor suddenly flew open with a bang; shrill screams, snarls, and growls rent the air; and there they saw Harry struggling desperately with two striped, hairy forms, which wriggled and twisted and rolled over and over, partly on the floor of the den and partly upon the door, which remained extended horizontally. Finally, the struggles of the two monsters grew feebler, and then, before his friends could make up their minds whether it would be safe to fire in order to aid him, Harry came leaping down, holding his enemies by the scruffs of their necks, one in each hand, and so bringing them with him to the ground. He alighted unhurt; but his antagonists fell with a heavy thud, and remained motionless upon the ground.
Then for the first time Harry looked about and appeared to be cognisant of the eager, astonished faces of his friends. He saw, also, the Indian chief, and guessed who he was, though he had not seen him before, and by a happy thought it occurred to him to play a part with a view to impress him.
He drew himself up, and turned one of his unconscious foes over contemptuously with his foot.
"You need not fear them any more. They cannot hurt you now," he said to the Indians, in the Macusi language, which by this time he knew fairly well. "But," he added, as he saw one or two rush forward with drawn knives, "I do not wish them touched. I will deal with them myself by and by."
To the questions showered upon him by Wilfrid and the others as they clustered round him and shook hands, pummelled him, pinched him, in order to assure themselves he was really alive and unhurt, he laughingly replied that he would explain everything later on.
"I don't want the Indians to know how that trick was accomplished," he said, in English, in an undertone to Wilfrid. "I'll tell you all about it when we can have a talk by ourselves. Meanwhile, I will just say for your comfort that I think you will find we shall be able to deal with these 'bogies' in future. I don't think we need fear them any more."
And with this enigmatical utterance, his chum, as well as the others, had to rest content, and to restrain as best they could their burning curiosity.
Staunton scrambled up to the den and looked in, but after a hasty glance at the interior he as quickly retreated.
"Periwinkles an' plasters!" he exclaimed to Bennet, when he got back, "What a filthy hole! Enough to turn a man's stomach even to look at it, much less to get a sniff o' the 'tarnal place! An' there's two more o' the critters in there—small uns! Goodness bless us! However did Mr. Harry manage to come out on top wi' all that cussed vicious crew goin' for him tooth an' claw?" He looked admiringly at the laughing youth. "Strike my flag, Mr. Harry, that wasn't no blessed tea-party you was at, I'm thinking'! Mermaids an' oysters, but you managed the critters fine, sir—yon managed 'em fine!"
And he sidled thoughtfully away, shaking his head and muttering to himself as he went.
Harry spoke to Wilfrid in a low tone.
"I want to have a talk with you and the doctor at once, Wilfrid. Can you leave Bennet in charge here with strict injunctions to keep everything just as it is until we return?"
"Yes. But what's to be done with these two bogies, as you call them, when they wake up?"
"They won't. At least, I don't think they will. However, to make sure, they might be bound with a cord, perhaps. I am anxious to see the doctor, and I'm going; so follow, old chap, as soon as you can." A little while after, the three were together, engaged in deep consultation.
"I must tell you just what happened," Harry began. "A few seconds after that terrible little dart had touched me, I felt a queer feeling of numbness steal over me, and I collapsed—fell right clean down and rolled over, as helpless as a log. I could see and hear, and I had all my senses about me, but was utterly unable to move so much as an eyelid. Then that awful beast came and stood over me, and stooped to pick me up; and as I saw his horrible eyes staring into mine, and his grinning jaws and great fangs, and felt his hot breath on my face, I turned sick and faint, and, I suppose, became unconscious.
"When I came to myself I was lying in these creatures' foul den in the tree. It took me a little while to recall what had occurred, and I can give you no idea of my feelings when the recollection of it all flashed upon me. At first I gave myself up for lost, but just then I became conscious of a curious sensation. It began in my breast, with an odd tingling, burning feeling, like pins and needles—not unpleasant, but unlike anything I have ever felt before. Gradually it spread over my body and along my limbs, and then I knew what it was. I was recovering from the effects of the poison—getting back the use of my muscles."
"Ha!" was all Wilfrid could find to say. He was listening with intense interest.
"But how was it the effects of the poison went off so soon?" the doctor asked in surprise.
"I am coming to that directly. As the conviction took hold of me, gave a glance at my surroundings, seeking for some possible means of escape. There was a subdued light coming from above, so that I could see fairly well, and what I saw very nearly sent me off into another faint. I cannot describe to you what that loathsome den was like, or the choking, rank, nauseating odours. The floor was strewn with bones, and the four occupants were seated with their backs to me, busily talking together. At least, I suppose they were talking; all I could hear was a succession of clicks, grunts, and snarls and squeals. The two little ones were as much interested as their parents, and none of them took any notice of me. I saw, lying beside me, half a dozen of the fiendish little darts, and I guessed that they constituted my hairy friends' stock of ammunition. Then I thought that if I could possess myself of those darts I might be able to turn the tables upon my captors."
"What a splendid, daring idea!" Wilfrid exclaimed.
"So it struck me," said Harry, simply. "Well, finding I had now the use of my limbs again, I put out my hand, and silently took up four of the darts and slipped them into my pockets. The other two I also took, one in each hand, and moved stealthily nearer to the jabbering group. Suddenly I sprang up and struck for my life. I managed to stab them all before they could turn to grapple with me; then I slipped the darts into a pocket, and so had my hands free for the struggle which I knew must come. I dared not throw the weapons down, or my foes might have picked them up and used them against me. I knew it would be a terrible tussle; but I reckoned on the poison doing its work quickly. And, as it turned out, I was right. In the fight which followed we rolled against the door and sent it flying open; then I felt the beasts' strength failing; and I caught them by the necks and, trusting to Providence, jumped off with them. I knew, of course, that the magic jacket I was wearing would save me from any very bad fall."
The "magic jacket" meant a garment which Wilfrid had given him, with strips of the new metal, "Moradium," sewn into it.
"It's a wonderful escape, and it was darned plucky of you to plan it and carry it out with such determination," said Wilfrid admiringly. "But how the dickens did it happen that you got over the dose of poison so quickly?"
"Yes, yes. That is what is puzzling me," the doctor put in.
"Why, can't you guess? It is all due to that wonderful stuff, our good old Moradium. The 'magic jacket,' in fact"
"How can that be?" queried the doctor.
"Whatever makes you think such a thing?" Wilfrid asked.
"I am sure of it. I cannot tell you why or how it acts, or anything of that sort, I can only say that I am convinced it has served, in some strange way, as an antidote to that awful poison—for awful it is, I will tell you, while you are under its influence. Well, now, doctor, that is the point I wanted to see you about at once. Have you been able to do anything yet for that poor Indian chap who was struck down this morning?"
"No, Harry. The case is beyond my powers, I am sorry to say."
"Then let us try the effect of this jacket upon him, and let us do it quickly. After my own terrible experience, I can feel for him every minute he is lying in the state of trance I was in."
The experiment was made, and, lo! the result was a success. The Indian woke out of his stupor, sat up, rubbed his eyes, then his limbs, and in a few minutes had thoroughly recovered. The doctor was amazed and delighted.
"It is astonishing!" he declared. "And it gives one quite new ideas as to the properties of Moradium!"
"Hurrah! Good old Moradium!" cried Wilfrid.
"Another notch to its credit. How delighted the pater will be when he hears about it!"
"And don't you see," said Harry, "how it helps us in our present difficulty? Practically the whole thing we have to dread about these 'Crambas'—as they call them—is their fiendish poison and their treacherous method of attack. Now that we have an antidote we can laugh at them."
"You're right, Harry, so we can! It will make a lot of difference in coaxing the Indians if we can show them that they need not fear these devilish creatures. Now, what are we to do with those two you mastered so cleverly, and their two cubs? We can't leave them as they are, I suppose?"
"I've been thinking," Harry replied. "Suppose we try to revive them with our trusty antidote, treat them kindly, and send them off with signs of amity and good-will? Maybe they will go and tell others of their tribe, and they may elect to leave us alone. If they do, so much the better; but if the plan fails, why, we can then shoot them down, if they attack us again, and laugh at their vicious little blow-tubes and poisonous darts."
"That seems sound advice, Harry, and we'll give your plan a fair trial. Anyway, it will be better than killing the poor wretches in cold blood, as the Indians will do, if we give them the chance." In accordance with this policy, the uncouth family were taken in hand and roused from their state of torpor, whereupon they at once showed fight. But after a struggle they gave in, and became very subdued. Then they were fed, kindly treated, and finally set free, with presents in the shape of fruit and pieces of deer's meat, and finally trotted off into the forest.
Whether they told their fellows, and induced them to refrain from molesting the party, cannot be said; but certain it is that nothing more was seen of them; nor were the travellers again attacked by any of the tribe while they remained in the neighbourhood.
"WHAT monkey tricks are you lads up to now?"
"We are practising, doctor. Rehearsing is, perhaps, a more correct word. We are preparing for the grand pow-wow to-morrow."
"'Tis a foolish project of yours, I'm afraid, Wilfrid, and if it miscarries it may do harm."
"No fear, doctor dear. We've worked up our parts perfectly, and well drilled Staunton and Bennet in theirs. You'll see that we shall astonish these 'bucks' and impress their dusky potentates. By Jove, how they will stare!"
This talk referred to the "grand idea" which Wilfrid had planned in order to gain over Inanda and his followers, and to induce them to give their aid in the advance into the unexplored region which lay before them. So far as Inanda was concerned, indeed, persuasion was scarcely required. He would have probably been willing enough, if the decision had been wholly in his own hands. But his superstitious followers were averse to it, as was also another chief, named Aronta,
Thus it came about that, after several meetings and discussions, a grand assemblage of the tribe had been finally arranged, at which there was to be a great feast, with dances, games, feats of jugglery, athletic sports, and various other diversions to follow.
Wilfrid had had such a contingency in mind before he left England, and had prepared for it by bringing with him a few fireworks, some coloured fire, and such like "properties." And over and above all these he and Harry had devised some novel and unexpected applications of the special powers of Moradium. Between them all he hoped to make such an impression upon the superstitious Indians as would lead them to do as he wished.
When the day arrived, many hundreds of "bucks"—as the Indians are called in Guiana, just as they are termed "braves" in North America—had gathered round the white men's encampment. The scene was an open savannah, bordering upon the forest. Inanda and Aronta were there, surrounded each by his own immediate following; while other lesser chiefs, with their wives, their young men, their maidens, and their children, spread themselves out in a great half-circle opposite to Wilfrid and his friends.
The latter were seated upon a platform, roughly constructed, at a level of two or three feet above the ground. The lower part was hidden by intertwined branches. In the centre of the platform was a sort of roomy armchair, made of light bamboo. Behind the platform was a dense thicket.
After various dances and other exhibitions on the part of the Indians, there came some jumping contests, and in these Wilfrid and Harry competed and, thanks to their "magic jackets," easily beat all comers. They seemed to float over the obstacles rather than jump. And when the native athletes, finding themselves altogether outclassed, declined to contend further and retired in dudgeon, the two executed some feats of jumping over tents, leaping off the ground and catching at the branches of trees fifteen feet or so above their heads; climbing trees and leaping down from their tops in graceful, curving flights, and other exploits, which at last roused even the phlegmatic Indians to acclamation.
"Sea-sarpents an' pomatum! What a day we're 'avin'! See how the beggars is starin' with all their eyes!" exclaimed Staunton, in a high state of enjoyment. "You didn't know we'd bin a-practisin' these little dodges, did yer?"
He was addressing Bennet, who, less demonstrative in his behaviour, was not the less appreciative of the fun of what was going on.
"I knew something of it, of course," he replied, "but you managed to keep it pretty dark. I must say the young guv'nors is takin' it out o' the darkies pretty well,"
"Ah!" said Sam, "you wait till Mr. Harry and me goes on in our great balancin' show. If that don't give 'em fits, then may I never mix a poultice again!"
The exhibition thus foreshadowed came on in its turn. Some Indian jugglers and acrobats gave a performance very much of the kind one sees in England at country fairs, but far more gracefully done, and in many respects much more clever. Doubtless the performers did not expect to see a rival exhibition by the two irrepressible young whites; they probably thought that here, at least, they would have everything their own way.
But if they had any such thought they were destined to be disappointed. This time Harry appeared in company with Staunton instead of Wilfrid, and the two proceeded, in a quiet, matter-of-fact fashion, with a performance whish proved to be, perhaps, the queerest and most remarkable seen.
The jugglers had gained much applause by some of their balancing performances. These were of the well-known type. One man supports a pole upon his waist, or breast, or chin, and balances it in the air, while another climbs up and goes through various gymnastic feats upon the balanced pole.
The exhibition given by Harry and Staunton was, in one sense, a grotesque and humorous imitation of this pole-balancing and climbing business; though, in another, it seemed a very startling, almost impossible, feat. For it was gravely announced that, instead of a pole, the man below would balance a rope, and that the other would climb the rope so balanced!
Then Staunton took a coil of rope and slowly unwound it, and, lo! the rope, instead of falling to the ground, rose steadily upwards! The end was tied into a knot, and this knot steadily rose till the coil had run out, when it was seen that the other end was fastened at his waist. Thus, the rope stood straight up in the air, swaying a little to and fro much as the balanced pole had done.
The spectators stared with open eyes at this phenomenon. What could it be that supported a heavy rope thus in the air?
Even the good doctor looked puzzled at this, for his young friends had not confided all their little plans to him.
"Don't you twig it, doctor?" Wilfrid whispered, as he saw the scientist's inquiring look. "That knot is to hide a piece of Moradium fastened to the end of the rope. The piece we put there has ascending power enough to carry the whole rope. Now watch friend Harry's little antics. This idea was his—he thought of it and worked it out himself."
Harry mounted upon Sam's shoulders, and then proceeded to climb the rope—at least, that was what it looked like, so artfully and cleverly did he manage the illusion. As a matter of fact, of course, he was merely holding on to the rope to keep himself from mounting in the air. Had he let go for a moment he would have gone up instead of down; yet to the onlookers he seemed to be slowly and labouriously climbing the rope. Arrived at the top, he stretched out one arm and one leg in an attitude, as the jugglers had done, then stood upon his head on the knot, and finally came down the rope head-first.
This exploit "brought down the house" and in the midst of the excitement which ensued, Sam threw a cloak over his fellow-artiste and carried him safely away under his arm.
Then came another dance—this time a very wild, fantastic affair, where grotesquely-dressed, whirling figures intermixed and passed and repassed, capering, leaping in madcap style. Suddenly into the midst of this throng came Wilfrid, out-capering, out-leaping them all. He stopped in front of Aronta.
"Dance with me, great chief," he said. "Join with me, and let me show you how your pale-faced brother can dance."
Without waiting for a reply he seized hold of the Indian and began whirling him along. He gyrated and frisked, leaped and turned, all the time lugging his unwilling partner with him as they circled round and round the ring of dancers.
Meanwhile the afternoon had come to a close, and darkness fell suddenly, as is always the case in the tropics. But fires had been already prepared in readiness, and at these torches were lighted and the dancing went on more merrily than ever.
"You are getting tired, great chief," said Wilfrid. "Let us rest here upon my seat, and we shall see what is going on all the better."
He led the Indian up on to the raised platform, in the centre of which there was, as has been noted, a large armchair. It was big enough to seat two comfortably. Upon this they sat down side by side, Wilfrid was glad enough of a rest himself, for though the "magic jacket" he wore beneath his clothes made the exertion of dancing very light compared with what it would otherwise have been, yet he had made up for that advantage by his extra efforts in his desire to astonish and impress the dusky chief.
Suddenly, strange lights burst out amongst the trees, and Harry lighted some red fire, which threw a great glare over the whole scene. The smoke from this floated across in front of the platform.
"This smoke is bad," said Wilfrid, "My Indian brother cannot see. We will rise above it,"
And, to the consternation of his companion, the chair began to rise in the air, bearing the two with it.
"The smoke still rises," Wilfrid observed, as the chair stopped for a space. "My brother will not be able to see. We will rise higher that we may still see over it."
Again the chair soared upwards, swaying uncomfortably at the end of a rope. But of the existence of this connexion with the earth below Aronta knew nothing. To him it seemed that they were floating in mid-air. Even to the awe-struck spectators below, the rope was invisible, for the smoke hid it. All they could see, therefore, was that their chief and his white friend were seated, as it were, upon a cloud, floating upwards as the cloud rose.
"Do not move. Is my brother afraid? But I know he is not that; he is too brave," said Wilfrid blandly. "Shall we go higher, into the clouds, or would my brother rather that I should lead him down to the ground once more?"
Aronta, partly by energetic gestures with his hands, and partly by some very forcible Macusi language, indicated that he had had quite enough of it, and desired to be set down. Accordingly his tormentor gave the signal therefor arranged.
But, to his dismay, there was no response. He repeated the signal, but with no better success. At the same time the smoke clouds enveloped them, so that he could not see what was going on around.
Harry, below, had received the signal, and duly transmitted it to the doctor, who, hidden in the thicket beyond, and assisted by Staunton and Bennet, was in charge of the little windlass which controlled the movements of the eccentric chair. But, somehow, none of the three responded.
The signals from above became more urgent. Aronta was getting alarmed, and in his restlessness, threatened to upset the equilibrium of the chair. Besides, the smoke was almost suffocating.
Below, there was still no movement of the rope, while the signals from above became every moment more pressing. So, finally, Harry started off himself to see what was the matter.
He found the worthy doctor intent upon the examination of a new species of firefly which he had just encountered and captured. In the delight which the catch afforded him he had entirely forgotten all about the windlass, and there he stood, oblivious of everything and everybody around, calmly scrutinizing the insect through a pocket microscope by the light of a bonfire.
Staunton and Bennet were nowhere to be seen.
Harry seized the windlass and promptly wound up the rope, whereupon the chair which held Wilfrid and his companion dropped smoothly and safely on to the platform.
Aronta stood upon his feet rubbing his eyes. The smoke had cleared away, and a salvo of rockets now flew up in the air, sending coloured stars floating into the skies.
Aronta, utterly overcome, dropped upon his knees—an example which was followed by the assembled multitude. And Wilfrid seized upon this dramatic moment to close the proceedings.
THE plan Wilfrid and his assistants had carried out at the Indian assembly proved to be entirely successful, and brought about the very satisfactory result of quite gaining over the waverers.
All Indians are superstitious and believe implicitly in witchcraft. In every tribe there are certain individuals, known as "medicine men," who are the native exponents of witchcraft and magic, and who are feared accordingly, even by the chiefs.
In this case, the Indian medicine men and jugglers had all been hopelessly outshone by the wonderful feats of the white travellers. Obviously, therefore, the latter (so the Indians reasoned among themselves) were people to be feared and to be propitiated.
Over five hundred of the tribe volunteered their services, anxious to enlist with the travellers as hunters, warriors, carriers, or in whatever capacity might be required. But such a number being far too many, a selection had to be made, and finally about fifty were picked out and formally engaged, under the immediate direction of their two chiefs, Inanda and Aronta, both of whom were now anxious to join the expedition and share in its adventures.
The preparations having been completed, a start was made, and the "haunted forest" was boldly traversed. Now and then the Indians would declare that they could descry, upon the trunks of some of the trees, traces of the abodes of the dreaded "Crambas," with their cunningly-concealed trap-doors; but of the creatures themselves nothing was seen, nor were the travellers annoyed or molested in any way.
After about a week's travel, and some minor adventures, the party entered an extremely desolate and uninviting-looking valley—a gloomy place, shut in by high mountains, and so rocky that scarcely any vegetation was to be seen. Great rugged boulders strewed the bottom of the valley, which rendered progress slow, the travellers being compelled to clamber over them as best they could; and the holes and crevices between were the lurking-places of monstrous spiders, bigger than anything of the kind previously seen.
It was a long and toilsome business, this march through the "Valley of Spiders," as the adventurers dubbed the place, but they got through it at last, and climbed the high, rocky ridge upon the further side. Then a wonderful and glorious sight burst upon their astonished eyes.
Beneath them lay an immense expanse of water, glistening in the afternoon sun. In front it stretched away without a break to the horizon; to left and right it extended almost as far as eye could see.
The shore was broken by bays, which lay between rocky headlands, mostly well-wooded, with, as background, a range of lofty, rugged, precipitous mountains, in which there seemed to be but one practicable pass—that which the party had happened to discover.
"It's just splendid!" Harry exclaimed enthusiastically, "Why, here we have a great sea all to ourselves! Our names will be famous as the first discoverers of this wonder!"
"It is clearly the great lake the Indian legends refer to as existing in this direction," said the doctor. "It remains now to be seen whether their stories of extensive islands inhabited by strange races are equally well founded."
"Mermaids an' oysters!" cried Staunton, as he looked forth over the waters with a critical eye. "If there be any islands, they be a long way off, that's sartin. Theer be no sign o' land in any direction as I can see. But what be that over theer, sir?"
"By Jove! It looks almost like one of those fine old ruined castles one sees on the Rhine," Wilfrid declared. "We must go and investigate this new marvel."
A ruined stone building of some kind it certainly was. It stood upon a rocky islet a little way out from the shore, with which it was connected by a narrow stone causeway, raised two or three feet above the water line.
It was pyramidal in general form, rising in three circular lines of walls or ramparts, each smaller and higher than the one below. It thus resembled, as the doctor remarked after examination, those curious pyramidical edifices, the ruins of which are still to be seen in Yucatan and other parts of Central America, supposed to have been built by some race who vanished long ages ago into the mists of antiquity. The most curious part of the matter was that the building seemed of so much more recent date than those old ruins.
"Why, it cannot be so very long since it was inhabited!" the doctor exclaimed, lost in surprise. "A very little trouble would render some of the apartments quite comfortable as living-rooms."
"I see one thing clearly enough," said Wilfrid. "This place will form splendid headquarters for us. Here we can get together a good store of provisions and all requisites, and make it a base from which to explore the lake and surrounding country. And, as the evening is closing in, we had better bring our people in here, and make ourselves comfortable for the night."
But no amount of persuasion or entreaty could induce the Indians to pass the night in the ruins. The place seemed to call up memories of some wild, superstitious tales they had heard, and they declared it to be haunted by demons, who had left it thus invitingly open as a snare or trap for passing travellers.
They, in fine, absolutely refused to sleep in the ruin. It was as much as their leaders could do to induce them to enter within the walls while daylight lasted, to take in necessary stores, and assist in making fires for cooking and other preparations. Just before sunset, they went out in a body and encamped upon the sandy shore opposite.
The white travellers, left to themselves, soon finished their arrangements for the night, and lay down to rest, tired out with their arduous journey through the "Valley of Spiders."
But some time in the middle of the night Harry awoke with a vague feeling upon him of restlessness and uneasiness. He had a sort of presentiment that something was wrong.
He and Wilfrid had chosen as sleeping place a small chamber with a window overlooking the lake, and he got up and peered through it. But all he could see was the sheet of water sleeping in the dim moonlight.
He therefore resolved to go outside and take a look round from one of the high walls. He put his hand out for his rifle, but failed to find it in the dark, and eventually went without it.
He passed through a spacious courtyard, ascended some winding steps, and quickly reached an old look-out tower which stood at the top of the upper line of ramparts.
There he had an extensive outlook on all sides; and just then the moon showed itself between the drifting clouds and lighted up the whole scene.
Harry glanced towards the shore, and could see the Indian encampment, where all seemed to be wrapped in slumber. Behind the belt of sand and rocks were masses of thick woods, and beyond and above these the towering mountains rose in deep, mysterious shadow.
At that moment he became conscious of another shadow which had fallen around the spot upon which he stood; and, looking up to ascertain the cause, he beheld a sight that nearly froze the blood in his veins with horror.
Overhead, some great creature hovered on outstretched wings, sinking slowly, gradually, towards him. It seemed to be a gigantic bird, and he could see the glint of the moonlight upon its raven-black feathers; but it was far larger than any eagle or vulture he had ever seen or heard of. It was, indeed, as big as a man; but, worse than all, it had a man's face! Yes, there, but a little above him, descending lower and lower, was a horrible face, distorted by a hideous leer, peering into his own, and almost near enough to be touched!
Spellbound with terror, Harry could make no movement to escape from this frightful apparition until it was actually upon him, and he felt himself seized in a grip of iron. Then, indeed, he made a despairing struggle, and fought and tore at the enveloping feathers, but it was in vain. He felt himself lifted from the ground; he felt the breeze fanning his face as he was carried up into the air. He saw the Indian bivouac below him as he floated above it. And still he and his captor rose higher and higher, over the rocks and the woods, till they reached the overhanging mountains and plunged into the inky blackness of their shadows.
GREAT was the consternation which stirred the members of the expedition when it was found, in the early morning, that Harry was missing. The matter was made all the more mysterious and perplexing by the absence of any traces either of the cause or the manner of his disappearance.
It was deemed scarcely likely that he could have passed through the Indian encampment without disturbing one or other of those vigilant children of Nature whose slumbers are at all times of the lightest. Moreover, it was declared that some had been watching in turns through the night.
These watchers had strange tales to tell. They declared that they heard the "rushing of demons' wings through the upper air," and that they had seen "great black shadows, that came and went across the face of the dim moon." But, naturally, such stories were received by both the doctor and Wilfrid with much scepticism,
However, if the Indians' guesses seemed wild, their efforts to track the missing youth were hearty and practical enough. Search-parties were organized and started off in different directions in the surrounding country. Staunton and Bennet accompanied two of these parties, while Wilfrid and the doctor hunted high and low among the ruins.
In the afternoon, as the two, tired and dispirited by their failures, were seated on the ramparts looking out for signs of news from the search-parties, some distant shots, given in a peculiar manner, conveyed to them the welcome tidings that the lost one was found, and they at once started off in the direction from which the sounds had come.
Soon they met two Indians, who had been sent to carry the news to the camp, and also to bring further assistance, since Harry, as it appeared, had hurt his leg and was unable to walk. One of them, therefore, continued upon his way in order to procure the best substitute for an ambulance he could find, and the other turned back to direct the doctor and his companion. Under his guidance they climbed a rocky height, and presently reached a clearing, where they came upon a most curious and unexpected scene. Upon the ground to their right was the dead body of a large jaguar. It lay upon its side, its mouth open, showing the cruel teeth, and its claws extended. Even in death it looked a terrible enemy to have to do with. Not far from this lay another dead body—that of a small peccary—a kind of wild pig—or, rather there were the remains of one, for it had been partly eaten.
But their attention was immediately drawn from these objects by shouts of laughter, varied by loud cries and exclamations, from Harry and the hunter Bennet.
Looking round, the new-comers were considerably startled to see another great animal—not dead this time, but very much alive—rolling about upon its back, with its huge fore-paws striking out actively, to the accompaniment of deep growls and loud snarls.
On one side was Harry, reclining upon a sloping bank three feet or so from the ground. He held in his hand a long stick, from which dangled what looked like a sort of ball of rolled up grass tied to the end of a string. On the other side was Bennet, with a similar contrivance, and the two were playing with the animal like two schoolboys with a kitten.
The creature was a puma of immense size; and as it turned from side to side to claw at the dangling balls and lashed its great tail to and fro, Bennet had to skip first this way and then that to avoid being struck. This he managed to do, it must be confessed, with great dexterity, but he cut so many absurd capers in the process that Harry was convulsed with laughter.
He himself, upon his ledge, well above the ground, was in a position of vantage, and could take his share in the performance without other exertion than moving one hand and arm.
Wilfrid uttered an involuntary exclamation of surprise, which seemed to catch the quick ear of the puma, for at once, with a sound that was half a purr half a roar, it got upon its feet and looked inquiringly at the intruders, as a big dog might do upon the approach of strangers.
It could now be seen that the animal was of most unusual proportions—being, in fact, almost as large as a lioness; and a very handsome and imposing picture it made, standing with its great head held high, sniffing the air, and its tail lashing its sides.
Naturally, the two upon whom its gaze was fixed were somewhat embarrassed. They were doubtful as to the reception they might meet with, and they both stood eyeing the animal dubiously. Harry perceived this, and called out to them;
"Come on, doctor! Come on, Wilfrid! How do you like my little kitten? Isn't she playful? See here!"
He dangled the string once more in front of the puma, whereupon the animal turned its attention away from the doctor and his companion and stood on its hind legs, clawing at the ball, which was provokingly lifted up just out of its reach.
"It's all right, sir," said Bennet, coming forward. "I never see such a thing in me life! This critter's as tame, an' as playful, an' as friendly as a great kitten. Yet she was savage enough to 'ave killed yonder great beast too!"
"How? What? Killed yonder tiger?" Wilfrid exclaimed, incredulously.
In South America all creatures of the jaguar or panther class are called "tigers."
"So Mr. Harry's bin a-tellin? me, sir."
"It's quite true, Wilfrid," Harry now said. "It is to this splendid animal that I owe my life. But I'll tell you all about it presently. Doctor, I'm hurt. My leg is injured."
"Ay, ay, lad. In our surprise, we were forgetting all about your hurts. What's the trouble? Are you in pain?"
"Not much, so long as I do not try to move. But I cannot walk. I'm afraid my leg is broken."
As it turned out, however, the leg was not broken but very badly bruised. This much the doctor was able to say after examination.
"H'm! It's a bad knock you've had, and it's a wonder the bone is not fractured. You've had a narrow squeak, my boy. How did it happen?"
"Will it be long before it's well, doctor?" Harry asked, passing over the last question,
"You will have to lie up and give it absolute rest for some days. I cannot say anything nearer than that just now. It is fortunate that we have a place like the old building for a temporary habitation, where we shall be able to have a quiet time for a few days, and give you the opportunity to get all right."
Harry made a wry face.
"As to that," he returned, in a low tone, "when you have heard my story you may alter your opinion about the probability of our having a quiet time in that old ruin. But I do not wish to speak of it in the hearing of the Indians. This much, however, I can tell you. As I was lying here in the night, hurt, and unable to move, that great jaguar yonder came to attack me, I saw its yellow-green eyes glaring at me, and saw that it was crouching for a spring. I could do nothing to defend myself, I had no weapon of any kind, and could not even attempt to make a run for it. I had, in fact, given myself up for lost when, with a great roar, another animal rushed out of the wood and threw itself on the jaguar. Then they went at it hammer-and-tongs. Anyway, the noise of their struggling and snarling and fighting began to sound far away, and I seemed to sink into a deep slumber. When I came to myself it was broad daylight, and this great beast was leaning over me, licking my face. Of course, that gave me another fright at first, but she was so quiet and gentle that I presently began to understand she wished to make friends, and I took heart, and stroked and patted her. Then she trotted off into the forest, and while she was gone I managed to crawl over here, beside this pool of water, with which I quenched my thirst, and then bathed my leg. That seemed to do it good, and the pain gradually grew less. What was my surprise, presently, to see Kitty, as I call her, come trotting back, carrying in her mouth a young wild pig. The poor beast laid it at my feet, with a look that said, as plainly as possible,'you must be hungry, so I have brought you something to eat.' She did not understand, I suppose, that it required cooking first to be of any use to me."
Wilfrid burst out into exclamations of wonder and admiration as he gazed at the puma, which, finding her late playfellows were too much engaged to notice her, was now gambolling on the grass upon her own account.
"I cannot help thinking," Harry continued, "that she has been used to being petted and played with. I have a sort of notion that she must be a tame animal belonging to some one."
"Why, to whom could she belong? It is hardly possible to imagine such a thing in these wilds," Wilfrid said.
"N—no, I admit the seeming improbability of such a thing," Harry answered, with some hesitation. "And yet the creature seems to have been tamed, and to look upon human beings as her natural friends, just like a great dog. You can see that."
"She doesn't seem to have looked upon that jaguar as her natural friend, nor was she too tame to fight it and master it," said Wilfrid, eyeing the dead animal curiously.
Just then Sam Staunton, carrying a bundle on his shoulder, came bursting through the bushes and caught sight of the puma. He did not wait to look round, or seek for an explanation, but, muttering his favourite objurgation when greatly moved—"Mermaids and oysters!"—he threw down his burden and made for the nearest tree, up which he scrambled as only a sailor can.
Now, the good-natured puma was on the look-out for another playfellow, and seemed to think, as she caught sight of Sam's retreating figure, that he was running from her in play, and inviting her to follow. Nothing loth, she accepted the challenge, and started up the tree in pursuit, and quickly made it clear to Sam that, however good a climber a sailor may be, a puma is a better.
Then there began a most amusing hunt. Sam climbed for all he was worth, performing prodigious feats, and rivalling even the monkeys as he threw himself from branch to branch, and from one tree to another. Finally, he managed to drop to the ground a little in advance of his pursuer, and he then raced towards Bennet, calling out to him to shoot the beast, or to lend him his rifle.
The puma, which had also dropped nimbly to the ground, was but a few feet behind, when Bennet interposed, and put an end to the pursuit.
The spectators had, indeed, been laughing too much to be able to interfere sooner. Harry was so tickled that he nearly rolled off his ledge, until, in one of his convulsions, he gave his injured leg a twist—which, for the time, very much sobered him.
As to Sam, however, his feelings must have been of a somewhat mixed character, if they may be judged by his language when matters were explained to him.
"She's only playful, and wants to make friends," said Bennet. "Look at her now; she wants you to play with her. Make friends with her Sam!"
But Sam shook his head.
"Flounders and gallipots!" he cried, "Why, I'd sooner hug a lee-shore an' have a tooth pulled in half a gale o' wind than trust myself within reach of a great beast like that!"
And he walked off in high dudgeon, refusing to be comforted or to make friends with his late pursuer; while the puma stood and watched his departure, staring at him out of her great round eyes with an air of the very utmost innocence and surprise.
"AND now, Harry," said the doctor, "tell us how it came about that we found you high up on the side of yonder mountain, without even your rifle with you by way of protection."
"Yes, tell us, Harry, old chap!" Wilfrid added, "It is puzzling me terribly. Have you taken to walking in your sleep?"
They were back in the old ruin, in the room from which Harry had wandered forth alone the previous night. The doctor had bandaged the injured leg and made the lad as comfortable as the nature of the hurt would allow. In one corner of the apartment lay the puma which had rendered him such a strange service. She had followed him closely, and insisted upon remaining near, as if she fancied he might still need her protection,
Harry related what had occurred up to the time when he had been seized and carried off.
"I tried to call out," he continued, "but I confess that I was too frightened to utter a sound."
"I don't wonder at that!" said Wilfrid, with a shiver. "And what happened next?"
"I was whirled up through the air till I felt giddy and faint, and then I was dashed down upon the rocks."
"Dashed down!" Wilfrid repeated wonderingly. "Do you mean purposely thrown down, or did you fall because you were let go?"
Harry shook his head,
"I was dashed down with fiendish, cruel force and murderous intent!" he replied. "I know that well enough. Fortunately, as you would expect, my 'magic jacket' broke the fall and saved me. But for that I should have been dashed to pieces—had every bone in my body broken, I should say—for I fell a considerable distance. On the way down I struck against a jagged piece of outstanding rock. That's what hurt my leg."
"But what was it that carried you off?" the puzzled doctor asked. "You have not yet told us, Harry, who or what your enemy was. Now, if we imagine a gigantic bird with strength enough to fly away with you, still it is difficult to think of it as deliberately throwing you down thus."
"It was no bird, doctor!" Harry answered, with a shudder. "No bird ever had such a face as I saw there in the moonlight, grinning into mine! No; it was a face like a man's—or, rather," Harry declared in a low voice, "a face like a devil's!"
A silence fell upon the three as Harry finished. Each was occupied with his own thoughts.
Presently the doctor spoke.
"Could it have been an immense bat?" he queried. "I never heard of bats so large as you describe; but I know that they all have frightfully ugly faces."
"But I tell you this creature had a face like that of a man, not of a bat!" Harry insisted.
"Well, evidently, talking about it won't enable us to decide what the creature really is," said Wilfrid at last, "Perhaps to-night may enlighten us a little. If the beast comes about here again, I'll let it have a bullet or two, and try what it's made of!"
When the night closed in Wilfrid had fires lighted in the courtyard—as they called it—which was outside the door of the room in which Harry lay, and he was brought close to the doorway, so that he could see and chat with the others during the cooking and eating of the evening meal.
The white men, as before, had the place to themselves, for none of the Indians would stay within the ruin after dark.
The latter had taken up their quarters again on the shore opposite, thinking thereby to escape from the "demons" by which they believed the ruin was haunted.
"I've got an idea," said Wilfrid, as he munched away at the frugal fare. "We ought to give this old place a name, so that we can identify it when speaking or writing about it. What do you say to calling it 'Moray Castle'—after my dear old pater, who originally projected and started us upon this expedition? It will please him, I know, when he hears about it, and will show him that, though far away, he is not forgotten."
Harry responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. The doctor smiled approval, and the proposal was adopted.
"You see, it's going really to be our castle;" Wilfrid went on. "We shall have to stay here some little time, I expect, partly to search the surrounding country, partly to build canoes or boats to explore the lake. Here we have a place just ready to our hand. A very little time and trouble will enable us to put it in a state of defence, so that we could almost stand a siege if necessary. At any rate, with such a fortress, we can defy any enemies we are likely to meet with in this region. Hallo! What the deuce was that?"
"It's a stone, sir," said Bennet's voice. He was seated with Staunton upon the other side of the fire. "Somebody's thrown a stone, or—er—h'm—well, I s'pose it's one as 'as rolled off the old wall up top."
"But," Wilfrid objected, "there's no wall near enough. Hallo! What's that?"
It was another stone, and a large one; and there came another, and another. One fell close to the doctor; another grazed Staunton's shoulder.
"Codfish an' pizens!" exclaimed the indignant Sam. "Blow me if some o' them redskins isn't 'avin' a bloomin' game with us! They talks to a body in the daytime about demons, and wampires, and that rot, and then thinks they can frighten us a-throwin' stones in the dark. Swab 'em!"
"No, no, Sam," said Wilfrid, shaking his head, "I don't think that. No Indian would venture round here in the dark to save his life; I feel sure of that. If—eh—what? Why, there's another! We shall have to see into this. Got your rifles handy, boys? Come along, then! Doctor, do you go inside with Harry for a while. You'll be all right there. Of course, these chaps, whoever they are, who're pitching these stones, can see us plainly enough so long as we remain in the light of the fires; and also, of course, they know we can't see them. There's some more! Look out! In you go, doctor! Come on, boys! We'll give the skulking cowards beans!"
So saying, Wilfrid dashed away, rifle in hand, up the winding steps which led to the upper line of ramparts and the look-out tower.
He reached the spot where Harry had stood when he had been attacked, and from there Wilfrid, as he had done, looked out upon all sides; but again there was very little to be seen.
The moon had not risen, and all was dark overhead. Upon the shore he could see the fires around the Indian camp. The light from them was reflected feebly along the causeway sufficiently to enable him to make out that it was quite deserted.
Staunton and Bennet stood beside him, and strained their eyes to see through the darkness, watching, with rifles ready, for any sign of a foe upon the walls or within the ruins, but they could discern nothing. Yet even there, while they stood upon the very highest point, peering about, striving to penetrate the darkness, down came some more stones. This time there was quite a volley, and one struck Bennet upon the arm, giving him a nasty blow—one that, had it been on the head, might very well have killed him,
"Why, they must be above us—over our heads!" cried Wilfrid, in bewilderment. "Fire straight up into the air! Let's give 'em a volley! One, two, three—fire! One, two, three—fire! Again—fire! There," he said, as the last shots rang out, "that's giving them back as good as they've given us, anyhow!"
He waited to see if there was any evident result. Nothing, however, could be heard or seen tending to show that the shots had taken effect. But no more stones fell. Meantime, from below came a sort of bellowing roar from the puma, which had been upset by the firing. After waiting two or three minutes, Wilfrid gave a grunt of satisfaction.
"Well," he said, "we seem to have stopped their little game for the time at least. Now let us return to see that our friends are all right." And he led the way back down the winding flights of steps.
The doctor came out to meet them.
"What is the matter?" he asked anxiously. "What have you been firing at? Have you—?"
He did not finish his question, for more stones came rattling around them.
Wilfrid pushed him back into the room from which he had just emerged.
"Come inside, boys!" he called to the other two. "We'd better get under cover and consider what's to be done!"
As they all crowded into the doorway, they met the puma making her way out. She was growling and lashing her tail, as though she understood that there were enemies about, and she meant to have her share in the fighting.
Unfortunately, she pushed against Sam, who happened to be last, and who still distrusted this strange addition to the company.
He jumped back to avoid her, thus exposing himself in the open, and he was unlucky enough to be struck by a small stone. It hit him on the hand, and gave him a nasty blow.
"Sharks an' syrups!" he spluttered, apostrophizing the animal. "What do you want shovin' Christians out o' the way for, an' gettin' 'em stoned as though they were meawin' cats in a back-yard? I knows," he added, as an afterthought, "as ye're a species o' cat yerself, and maybe ye're used to it; but a Christian like meself don't understand it."
Two or three more stones fell, and the puma playfully ran after them as a kitten might have done. Sam, now well within the doorway, stood watching her, rubbing his smarting hand the while.
"There, I said so—seems to enjoy it!" he muttered, disdainfully. "Oh, she ain't no class! She's used to bein' pelted, like a wanderin' cat on the tiles!"
He turned from her with a sniff and went inside, where he found the others holding a council of war by the light of two or three lanterns.
The talk went on for some time, and meanwhile the stone-throwing ceased entirely. The puma came back into the room and retired to her comer, growling and sniffing in a dissatisfied fashion.
"It all seems quiet outside now, sir," Bennet presently observed. "I'll just take a look about."
He went out and looked round. The fires had nearly died out, and scarcely yielded enough light to see by; but as soon as he appeared within their circle of light more stones came rattling down, and he hastily retreated. One stone glanced from somewhere and hit him on the leg just within the doorway.
"Zounds! I don't like this, Mr. Wilfrid!" he said, as he came inside again. "There be somethin' uncanny-like, to my thinkin', in bein' watched like this 'ere by creeturs flyin' over our heads in the dark, an' as we can't even see ourselves!"
The others noticed that the hunter spoke in a more serious tone than he had yet employed, and, knowing the fearless nature of the man, they were impressed by his change of manner and by the suggestion contained in his last words.
"I don't like it either," Harry admitted, with a shudder, "As you say, Bennet, there must be creatures overhead, watching our every movement, and none of you know, as I do—as I have only too good reason to know—what horrible creatures they are!"
"What can we do?" Wilfrid asked. "Your talk makes one shiver. It is certain we cannot safely go to sleep, even in here, without, one of us remaining on the watch."
"Let's wait till the moon's up," Sam suggested, "then we shall be able to see if there be any o' them pirates cruisin' about, and, if they still be there, maybe we can give 'em a leaden pill or two as their little insides won't digest so easily."
"A good idea, Sam!" Wilfrid replied approvingly. "One shall watch for an hour or two, while the others try to snatch a little sleep, and by then the moon will be high enough to give us the light we want."
Two hours later they sallied forth once more, and found a waning half-moon riding in a clear sky. They mounted to the old watch-tower and looked around; but no falling stones now assailed them, nor could they see aught overhead to account for the happenings of the previous part of the night.
Suddenly Wilfrid uttered an exclamation. "See!" he cried. "Look! What is that yonder?"
Far away towards the horizon they could discern some large black shapes, which seemed to float upon the slight breeze rather than fly. They were too far off for the spectators to see them clearly, and they soon disappeared into a haze which then hung over the water.
"Bless my lee scuppers!" said Sam. "There goes the varmints! How I wishes I was a doctor and had 'em fur patients! I'd perform some surgical operations on 'em as 'ud give 'em fits!"
THE dwellers in the ruin were not disturbed again that night; but they did not get much sleep, and the morning found them tired and a little dispirited.
As the sun rose, however, and the impressions of the night became less vivid, their spirits gradually improved.
Harry's leg was better, and he could limp about with the aid of a stick. Wilfrid rigged him up an awning on the walls, so that he could lie in a hammock beneath its shade and have a view both of the lake and the shore. Here, with his new four-footed friend as companion, he lay till Wilfrid was able to join him for a long conference.
Wilfrid again asked many questions of his chum about his experience of the first night, with a view to forming some idea of the mysterious enemies who seemed to attack them only in the darkness; hut, as before, they had to admit that he could give no information definite enough to help them to any conclusion,
"I can't quite understand it. It's an inexplicable puzzle to me," said Wilfrid.
"It was all very real to me," replied Harry with a shudder. "And between you and me, Wilfrid, I really do begin to think Bennet is right—that we have here some very weird, uncanny foes to deal with. Somehow, I have a feeling that they are more cunning, more malignant, and more crafty than we have any idea of. I fancy we are only at the beginning of our troubles with them. We have come into their country, and they mean to turn us out again or kill us if they can, and I fancy they are likely to spring some unpleasant surprises upon us before we have done with them."
"Well, after all," Wilfrid rejoined, "we came upon this expedition rather in the hope of meeting with some adventures a little out of the common——"
"And we're getting them," Harry put in.
"Yes, quite so. But it's only what we looked for, and therefore I am not going to be frightened into turning back."
"No, nor am I. It is the Indians I am thinking of."
"Why, don't you see, Wilfrid, if the Indians once take any real alarm, we shall be in trouble—serious trouble! If a panic sets in among them, they will leave us and go back—perhaps in a body,"
"No. Inanda would prevent that, I think."
"Still, they might desert us in detail—dribble away in twos and threes. It would come to the same thing in the end."
"Speaking of that, Harry, I forgot to tell you that Bennet said something, the first thing this morning, about two of the Indians being missing. He was rather vague, and I did not pay much attention to it at the moment. I must inquire into it."
"Did you hear anything else? What did they think about your fusillade in the night?"
"Oh, I believe they thought we were having a battle royal with the demons, and they were rather surprised to find they hadn't eaten us up, and that we were still here to-day! There were also the usual stories about their having seen the demons flying about, and so on. But they seem to have been let off better than we were. There was no rain of stones in their territory. And now I'm off to see about our new look-out tower."
This last remark referred to a plan the two had schemed out for converting what remained of the old watch-tower into a veritable post of vantage, in such a way that from its shelter they could watch for the coming and going of their mysterious enemies and retaliate upon them.
It was agreed that this work must take precedence of any exploration of the surrounding country. All hands were therefore impressed into the service, and a number of assistants were set to work, cutting down wood and shaping it roughly, under Wilfrid's directions. Harry, left very much to himself, found the puma a welcome and most amusing companion. The animal was wonderfully docile, and ever ready to sport with any one who would take the trouble to play with it. But about midday it suddenly went off and disappeared into the nearest wood, and that day they did not see it again.
"Got tired of Moray Castle, I expect, and has gone back to its home," was Wilfrid's comment.
"Can it have another home, I wonder—amongst human beings, I mean?" said Harry dreamily. "If I thought it really had, I would send a message."
"Send a message! What are you talking about, Harry?"
Harry seemed to wake up from a reverie.
"Oh, nothing, of course!" he replied more briskly. "Only, somehow, I can't get the idea out of my mind that it has been tamed, and is used to the society of human beings. And if so—why, then, think what possibilities it raises up!"
"Dreams!" answered Wilfrid shortly; and the subject was dropped.
Towards evening the new watch-tower was finished—or, at least, it was pronounced to be sufficiently near completion to enable it to be used that night.
It was merely a rough, round, wooden hut, with a steeply sloping roof; but it was as strongly fastened together as circumstances would allow, and both roof ad sides were loopholed with long, narrow slits. Wilfrid assisted Harry to hobble up to inspect it.
"There," said his chum, with pardonable pride, "what do you think of that for one day's work? It will be better still, of course, before we have finished with it; but it will answer our purpose for to-night. You see, we have a perfectly good view through these loopholes in every direction-above, below, over the shore, over the lake, and over the courtyard. Our stone-throwing friends may amuse themselves with bombarding us as much as they please to-night. The roof is stout enough to resist anything they are likely to treat us to, and its shape will help to throw the missiles off. At the same time, we can pot at 'em through the slits."
"That is, if you can see 'em," Harry reminded him. "Well, yes, of course, if we can see them. But, if we can do no more than fire shots at random, surely some are likely to take effect."
"Let us hope so," Harry rejoined. "You'll let me be in this look-out to-night, and have a shot at them, too, Wilfrid? I owe the beggars one, you know."
"Certainly, my dear boy. I want you to be one of its garrison to-night, and by all means do your best to pay the brutes out. As for me, my post will be elsewhere."
"Oh, down below! I'm working out a plan of campaign with Bennet. You shall hear all about it before the fun begins; as soon as the programme is filled in. Now I must be off to complete our arrangements."
And with that Wilfrid went his way, smiling and in good spirits. But, had he known what the experiences of that night were actually to be, he would have been far from looking forward to it in such light-hearted fashion.
In due time the afternoon drew to a close, and darkness fell. Then the fires were made up as usual, and to a casual observer there seemed to be figures seated or lying about around them. But the figures were dummies, for the real occupants of the place were hidden away elsewhere.
Harry was up above in the little new wooden look-out hut, with the doctor and Staunton. Wilfrid and Bennet were in a little shed built against the wall in a dark corner of the courtyard. It had a lean-to roof, in which were slits for loopholes. The front was open, and through it the occupants could see all over the space lighted up by the fires, while they were themselves hidden in deep shadow. Those in the look-out hut above could also see down into and over the courtyard, and across it to the shed in which the other two were concealed. Both parties had repeating rifles and revolvers, and a good stock of ammunition.
For some time after the watchers had taken up their positions there reigned a dead silence, broken only by the crackling of the wood fires and the subdued cries of wild animals from the adjacent woods.
Suddenly there arose a great noise in the Indians' camp on the shore. Shrieks, cries, and yells were heard, in a confused clamour. Wilfrid rushed out from his hiding-place and mounted one of the lower ramparts whence he could get a view of what was going on.
He saw the Indians' fires, of which there were a large number, extending for some distance. The smoke which rose from them was lighted by the glare of the flames, and seemed in the surrounding darkness like a luminous cloud. And there, hovering in the midst of it, high above the ground, he saw what looked like two great, glistening serpents hanging heads down, their tails hidden in the upper darkness.
Hardly had Wilfrid time to make out the meaning of this scene of horror when he heard a loud hiss close at hand, and a warning cry from Bennet, who had followed him. Looking round and upwards, he saw the open jaws and gleaming coils of another monstrous serpent, which seemed to hang somehow suspended from the blackness above, and which was sweeping swiftly down upon him.
WILFRID raised his rifle, but he was too late. It was struck aside, and went off harmlessly. He heard Bennet fire, and also heard other shots, and then he was knocked down. Something fell upon him. He felt almost suffocated by a heavy weight, but a moment later it slipped from off him, and he heard a loud splash in the water below.
Then Bennet's voice sounded in his ears:
"Are ye hurt, sir?"
Wilfrid rose to his feet, and looked about him. He was somewhat dazed, but otherwise unharmed.
"I was half stunned," he said, "and half crushed into the bargain. Whatever was that that fell upon me? And what has become of it?"
"As to what it was, I know no more'n yerself," was the answer. "But as to where it's gone—why, it's slipped into the lake. It looked like a mighty great sarpent; an' yet it wasn't no sarpent, if ye can understand sir."
But Wilfrid did not understand, and gazed round him, feeling somewhat bewildered.
Then Harry's voice was heard calling out in anxious accents. Wilfrid shouted in return to reassure him.
"What's become of our foes?" he next asked of Bennet. "Have they gone?"
"Goodness knows, sir! But I should say, let's get away from 'ere. The beggars knows wheer we are while we stop here an' shouts an' talks, even if they can't see us."
"That is true. Let us go up to the others, and see how they have fared."
Arrived at the look-out hut, Wilfrid was plied with questions.
"I could see yon down there pretty plainly," Harry said. "You were almost in a line with the fires on the shore. I saw something like a great shining serpent with open jaws coming down to seize you, and above it I could just make out a dark shadow hovering, I thought it would be useless at that distance to fire at the swaying serpent, so I aimed at the shadow above, I sent three bnllets after it, and down went the dangling, wriggling beast at once."
"Ah, that's how it was! You saved me. I owe you a good turn for that, and no mistake!"
"What was it that attacked you?"
"I haven't the ghost of an idea. I only got half a glimpse of it, as you may say, before it was upon me; and as it slid off and fell into the water, I heard a scraping, rattling sound like metal or hard bone, Why, dear me, what's that?"
Something had fallen at his feet. They had been standing on the broad rampart outside the open door of the hut. The doctor had seen a dark object like a ball fall past him, and he could just make it out lying motionless a foot or two away. Impelled by curiosity, he moved towards it, when it darted forward with almost incredible rapidity, seized upon his hand, and then as quickly darted off in another direction, and was gone.
The doctor cried out:
"I am bitten! Something rushed at me, and bit me!" he said. "It was a spider, and—Look out! There is another!
"Get inside, lads!"
They scrambled inside the hut, and banged the door to. For a second or two no one spoke; they were all listening and peering through the loopholes. Then Wilfred asked the doctor what it was that had attacked him.
"It was a spider," the doctor answered emphatically, "and, as you saw, it was an enormous specimen. My hand is becoming very painful, and I can feel it is swelling fast. I must get down below to our medicine-chest."
"Crabs an' hair-oil!" Staunton exclaimed. "Ye can't go, sir. Theer be more come down, I can see 'em!"
"What's to be done?" Harry cried. "Doctor, is it a serious bite, do you think?"
"I fear it is likely to be, lad. The bite of all large spiders is dangerous—even deadly at times. And this is a monster, bigger than a 'mygale'—bigger even than the lycrosa, which is the largest and most dangerous, and also the fiercest, of all the spiders in this country known to naturalists."
"Why not try Moradium, doctor?" Harry asked diffidently. "It cured the poison of those terrible little darts. Perhaps it may be good for the poison of a spider's bite."
"Why, that is a good thought, Harry! We will test it at once!"
While Harry and the doctor proceeded to act upon this suggestion, Wilfrid gave his attention to keeping out any more of the dreaded creatures that might be about. Big as they were, they might be able to squeeze through some of the loopholes.
"We must have a light," he said at last. "It is horrible—intolerable—to be cooped up here in the dark, while such creatures are likely to attack us at any moment. Bennet, where did you put the dark-lanterns?"
But there was no answer. The hunter had mysteriously disappeared. Sam, however, found a lantern, and lighted it; but immediately, with a loud cry, he dropped it, and it went out.
"Why did you do that?" Wilfrid called out to him. "Give it to me; I will light it."
Sam replied in a hoarse whisper that sounded full of fear: "Theer be a imp of darkness a-peerin' down through the roof, Mr. Wilfrid!" he declared. "I seed a horrid face—just like Mr. Harry told us about!"
"Why didn't you shoot at it?" Wilfrid demanded, somewhat sharply. "Here, give me the lantern: and find another, too! We must see what we are doing."
Wilfrid felt a lantern pushed into his hand, and a moment or two later he had lighted it, and was throwing the light about in various directions.
He saw no "imp of darkness" face, but he did see the glaring eyes and hairy body of a great spider, which was just pushing its way through the largest loophole in the roof.
He pushed at it with the barrel of his rifle, but the beast had got its hideous legs well inside, and held on, trying to force its way in. Its strength was surprising. It seemed absurd to waste a charge of powder and a bullet over a mere spider; but there seemed no other way to make sure of getting rid of it, so Wilfrid pulled the trigger, and blew the creature to pieces in the outer air. Then he turned the light about and examined the other openings. He could see more gleaming eyes and more long, hairy legs trying to force their way in; but such was the size of these monstrous insects that the other loopholes were all too narrow for them to get through. When he had assured himself as to this, Wilfrid, after bidding Sam keep on the watch, turned to the doctor.
"Is it of any use, doctor? How do you feel?"
"Better," was the welcome answer. "But we applied it only just in time. The poison was spreading fast; I could feel it travelling up my arm!"
"Good again! Good old Moradium!" Wilfrid cried. "Then we may take it that you will not want the medicine-chest just now?"
"I hope so, my lad," came the cheerful answer. Wilfrid, thus relieved from immediate anxiety upon the good doctor's account, turned his attention again to their assailants.
"How absurd," he said, in a vexed tone, "for four people, armed with rifles and pistols, to be besieged and kept shut up by spiders! Did ever any one hear of such a ridiculous position?"
"Why, as to that," the scientist returned, "there is an Indian legend to the effect that a whole city was once besieged, and its inhabitants finally driven away, by big spiders, said to have been of the species I mentioned just now—the lycrosas. Mr. W.H. Hudson, the naturalist, refers to the legend in his book, The Naturalist in La Plata. He speaks there of the lycrosa as the 'king of spiders' and declares the creatures are so fierce and aggressive that they rush out and attack any one passing within a few yards of their lurking-place. I have myself seen Indians who have lost the use of an arm or a leg through the bites of large spiders. Therefore I know that one has good cause to fear them."
"Humph! Say you so, doctor? Then we must be careful with the brutes, at least till we are quite sure that Moradium will counteract their venom. Now, where on earth is Bennet? Did any one hear him say where he was going? Can he have got into trouble? Surely, in that case, we should have heard him call out?"
Even as he spoke there came two loud reports close at hand, then the sound of fierce blows and struggling, followed by Bennet's voice:
"Open the door, sir; open the door!"
Wilfrid opened the door, and Bennet came staggering into the light of a lantern which Staunton was holding. Then the door was banged to, and Wilfrid turned to the hunter.
"Are you bitten, Tom?" he asked hurriedly.
"Ay, sir, I be. In two or three places, I guess. I went down below to bring up the shotguns, an' I 'ad got back with 'em all right, when I seed the fiery eyes of a whole swarm of big spiders a-makin' fur me through the darkness. I fired two shots, an' blew a lot of 'em to smithereens; but t'others went fur me, an' I had a rough time of it."
"You must have had an awful time of it!" said Wilfrid, shuddering. "It's bad enough to be safe inside here and see them glaring at you through the holes. I can't think what it must be like to be attacked by a whole troop in the dark. But since you went away we have discovered a remedy for the bites, so you need not worry."
"I'm main glad to hear that, sir!" returned Bennet, and there was a note of relief in his tone. "The places is beginnin' to hurt. They pains and burns badly."
The doctor took him in hand, and over each wound bound a piece of "the precious metal," as Harry had come to call it.
"It's becoming more precious every day," he said. "It's far more precious to us than gold. See how many times it has saved us already! What colossal sum will a mine of it be worth, if we find one!"
"BUT where are the guns, Bennet?" Wilfrid presently asked.
"I dropped 'em outside," said the hunter, a little shamefacedly, "an' the flasks o' small shot, too,"
"Ah! I don't wonder, though. But we had better get them safely in here as soon as we can,"
A careful survey was made, but no sign of the hideous insects was now to be seen from the inside. Then the garrison sent the rays of the lanterns through the loop-holes and peered out; but still saw no signs of them.
"I expect they have crept away out of sight of the lamps," the doctor observed, "It would be only spider-like to do so. They prefer to hide in dark holes when they can, and I fear they will now be likely to lurk about the ruins here and give us trouble for some time to come."
The door was opened cautiously, and beams of light were sent forth to illuminate the ground beyond. There Wilfrid saw the guns and shot-flasks lying a few yards away, and made a sudden quick sortie to secure them,
As he returned with them into the hut, something whizzed past him, and fell with a clatter on the floor just inside. The door was pushed to, and then Harry stooped to see what it was that had fallen.
"Why, I declare it's an arrow!" he cried, as he held the object in the lantern's light.
They stared at one another in the obscurity, and for a space there was silence.
"A bolt from the blue—an arrow from the sky," Wilfrid observed, after a pause. "The one sounds about on a par with the other. This is getting interesting. Let's have a look at the thing."
The doctor also looked at it, and then he gave a perceptible start.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "You are right, Wilfrid, This is highly interesting!"
"Does it tell you anything, doctor? Do you recognize it?"
"I do recognize it, and it seems to tell a strange story. I have seen an arrow like this, and only one. That one is supposed, indeed, to be the only specimen of its kind in the world. It is in an American museum. It was taken out of a very ancient stone tomb that was discovered amongst those wonderful ruins of what is supposed to have been the once mighty city called Tiahuanaco. These ruins stand beside the celebrated Titicaca, the great lake, which lies twelve thousand feet above sea-level on the eastern slopes of the towering Andes, The people who once inhabited that wonderful city vanished long before the Spaniards discovered and invaded the land. The arrow I saw was made and used, there is every reason to suppose, by that lost race. But now we find similar ones in use here!"
Wilfrid gave a sort of grunt which did not altogether express great pleasure and admiration such as the doctor, by his tone, appeared to expect.
"It may be interesting as an antiquarian fact," he remarked, in a discontented tone, "but an arrow's an arrow, and it'll be no particular consolation, as far as I can see, if I get one through my lungs, to be able to boast that it is own brother to the one that was dug out of yonder ancient tomb. We must stop this little game somehow. It's getting serious!"
Suddenly Sam pushed him abruptly aside, and struck at something. Another arrow fell clattering on the floor.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," the sailor cried, "somebody was just a-goin' t'jab ye with another of 'em through the window!"
"Some one stabbing at me through the loophole, Sam?" Wilfrid exclaimed in amazement. He seemed to be more affected by what he considered the impudent audacity of such a thing than by the danger he had escaped. "Here, give me a rifle! I'll show the beggars!"
But Sam wisely stopped him.
"Ye can do nothin' out theer in the dark agenst the swabs," he reminded him. "The pirates'll see ye agenst the light, and shoot better p'r'aps next time. Let's give 'em a volley, sir, as ye suggested before!"
"Yes, yes, by all means!"
So a volley was fired, and a reply quickly came, in the shape of a counter-volley of arrows, which rattled against the roof and sides, one or two falling through loopholes, but, luckily, without hurting any one.
Wilfrid was in a state of great indignation at this.
"What on earth can we do against such enemies?" he asked. "It is fortunate indeed for us that they are not armed with firearms, for we should be entirely at their mercy as things are. What can we do to get on even terms with them?"
Various suggestions followed this appeal, and all sorts of schemes were mooted, only to be rejected one after the other.
While they were talking, however, matters seemed to take a better turn of their own accord. No more arrows fell, and they became aware, as they stopped talking for a moment or two, that everything around had become very silent and still.
"I shall go out to take a look round, and risk it!" said Wilfrid. And he opened the door, peered about, and stepped out. It was slightly lighter, Over the tops of a distant mountain there was a half-circle of feeble radiance, the evident forerunner of the rising moon. The fires in the courtyard had gone out, but the Indians had kept theirs going, and over them hung a cloud of luminous smoke,
Wilfrid stood and watched it. It still threw a faint reflection even as far as the walls upon which he was standing. All was quiet in the camp, and, so far as he could see, above and around also. Had the foes retired for the night? he wondered. Certainly the moon would soon be up, and then—What was that?
With horror depicted in his face, and as plainly indicated in his voice, Wilfrid rushed in and slammed the door.
"Quick! The shot-guns!" he cried. "Give one to me at once! Get your revolvers ready, too, all of you, and guard every hole, every crevice, every crack. You take the other gun, Sam! Somebody hold up the lights!"
These directions, given in breathless haste that denoted instant and pressing danger, were obeyed at once, and an expectant silence fell upon the group, as they awaited developments,
A few seconds passed, and then there came a faint scratching sound.
"What in the name—" Harry began.
But his chum stopped him with a low "Hist!"
The scratching continued. Something was wriggling or crawling over the roof. Through one of the narrow slits the something appeared. It was of a brilliant orange hue; but even as it came into view Wilfrid fired both barrels at it.
He pushed the discharged gun into Staunton's hands, and snatched the other from him.
"Load—quickly as you can!" he whispered; and a second or two later fired again. "That's two!" he said, in a tone of relief, "That was all I saw; but there may be more. Keep a look-out, all of you!"
"But what for?" Harry said.
"Serpents—bushmasters," came the short reply from Wilfrid, as he took the loaded gun Sam handed to him.
"The bushmaster!" Bennet, muttered, in a low awe-struck tone. "The murderin' critters!"
"The 'lord of the woods!'" murmured the doctor. "The most deadly, the fiercest, the most aggressive snake of the South American Continent—the dreadful 'mapana' of the Alto-Orinoco Indians! The only snake that rushes to attack people unprovoked! I don't wonder now at your terror, Wilfrid."
"Whales an' blisters!" spluttered Sam, "I've never sailed in the same waters with them there craft, but I've 'eard of 'em. I've 'eard tell as they'll lay ye out quicker'n cholera mopus or teutonic plague!"
"Why, yes!" the doctor replied, smiling, in spite of himself, at Sam's jargon. "Had one of those reptiles got in here, we should almost to a certainty have been all dead men in the morning. It was a happy thing that you were warned in time, Wilfrid. We should have known nothing about it—never have thought of such a thing—if you had not been outside."
"I just caught sight of the beasts dangling at the end of grass ropes!" Wilfrid explained. "There was a glint of light from the fires yonder upon their horrid gaudy bodies, and I even saw the eyes of one. Then the thought flashed upon me that they were the terrible 'mapana' snakes. I have never seen but one, and that was dead; but I recognized them at once. There is no other snake so brilliantly coloured. I caught sight of them and slipped inside only just in time. Another second or two, and they would have been on to me. It is horrible to think we have here to do with foes who could invent such a ghastly, fiendish, cowardly method of attacking us!"
"They seem to know nothing of firearms," said Harry, "and yet of what avail are our superior weapons against tactics like these, and people we cannot even see?"
But no further alarms came then, and while they still talked and watched, the moon rose and lighted up the scene. Then they crept cautiously out, and looked about them. Nothing was now to be seen of their mysterious enemies; but scattered around lay a few arrows, several dead spiders of extraordinary size, and the mangled bodies of two bushmasters.
Bennet was sick and weak, and had to be supported by Sam; the doctor's hand was painful, too, and he carried it in a sling; while Harry could still only hobble about by the aid of a stick.
"Three out of five placed on the sick list already," muttered Wilfrid. "At this rate we shall pretty soon be all hors de combat!"
On their way down they heard a great clamour coming evidently from the Indian camp. Sam went forward to see what was going on, and he came running back with wonder plainly written in his face.
"Mermaids an' oysters!" he gasped. "If the redskins ain't a-shoutin' to be let come in here! They're that frightened of summat or other!"
"Want to come in here? Too frightened to stay outside?" Wilfrid repeated incredulously, "Why, then, is there an earthquake going on, or are the skies falling? Nothing less, I should have thought, would have brought them to such a pass. Come along! Bring your arms; we must see into this!"
STAUNTON'S statement proved to be in no wise exaggerated. When Wilfrid and his party reached the castle gate—a sort of gate had been improvised and fitted into the old doorway—they found the two chiefs, Inanda and Aronta, just outside it, surrounded by every one of their bucks.
"Tigers—warracaba tigers!" ejaculated the two chiefs simultaneously, waving their arms towards the distant woods.
"Tigers?" repeated Wilfrid, in puzzled tones. "Why should my Indian brother fear a tiger? Has he not his rifle? Is he not a brave hunter? Are not all his bucks brave hunters?"
"Rifles no good, guns no good against warracabas!" grunted Inanda.
"Your fires are all burning brightly, too, I see!" Wilfrid went on, still more mystified. "What tigers are likely to attack you in the face of those fires?"
"Fires no good against warracabas; shooting no good. Nothing any good against them but water," the Indian answered. "Hark! Let the young white chief listen!"
At a signal from their chiefs the Indians all became silent, but crowded up closer and closer towards the gateway, giving all the time apprehensive glances back towards the shore.
Wilfrid listened; the doctor listened; they all listened intently. At first they could hear little beyond a confused murmur somewhere far off in the neighbouring forest. But gradually it grew louder, and swelled into a mixture of sounds, amongst which could be heard squeals, shrieks, and roars. Then, above all these, there arose a very curious sort of trumpeting. Wilfrid listened again.
"That sounds to me," he said hesitatingly, "something like the noise made by that bird they call the trumpeter."
"Yes, yes!" Inanda interrupted eagerly. "Yes, trumpeter—warracaba!"
"I know now what they mean!" said the doctor suddenly. "Warracaba tigers! Said to be so named because they make a strange, trumpeting noise, something like the warracaba—the 'trumpeter bird.' Yes, I have heard of them, and I believe, if these indeed be the real thing, that the Indians have good reason for their fear,"
"Say you so, doctor? Then that settles it, of course!" Wilfrid returned, marvelling more than ever. "But do, for goodness' sake, explain to me——"
But a loud outcry from the Indians cut short his question. The noises from the woods were growing louder every moment, and the Indians were becoming more impatient. Not only Wilfrid and his chum, but Bennet, the experienced hunter, to say nothing of Sam, gazed in undisguised astonishment at the terror-stricken faces of the Indians and the evidences of the panic which reigned amongst them.
"Codfish an' ointment!" Sam muttered. "Blest if ever I'd 'a' believed such a thing! To think of all them redskins bein' in such a funk about a few meawin' big cats! So frightened as to prefer the company of the demons an' sperrits they say we've got in 'ere! Well, arter that, blow me out o' the water an' shave me head!"
But, however surprised he might be, Sam had to obey orders, and he accordingly unfastened the gate, and remained there, open-mouthed, while the whole Indian company trooped past him. Then he bolted up the doorway, and joined his leaders on the rampart above.
Looking towards the woods, the watchers could now see many creatures issuing from them and racing along the shore, some to the right, some to the left, while a few rushed headlong into the water. These were the ordinary inhabitants of the forests, now frightened and fleeing for their lives in strange and extraordinary confusion; those whose nature it was to prey upon others being mixed up with those which were commonly their victims. Even great serpents, jaguars, and other rulers among the woods, were infected with the general panic, and fled without taking the slightest notice of what or which were the creatures racing along beside them.
"It is all very much as I have heard happens when there is a forest fire," Harry remarked. "Surely that must be the true explanation."
"I should be inclined to think so, too," Wilfrid agreed, "only there is no sign of a fire anywhere, and the Indians would not have been so terror-stricken. Then, again, listen to that mysterious, trumpeting roar, now that it is nearer and louder! Never have I heard animals make so strange a sound!"
Presently there emerged from the woods a troop of great creatures like a pack of wolves, but much larger. So far as could be seen in the moonlight, which was but dim at the time, they were of a light grey colour, with darker streaks along the backs. They careered up and down the shore, and pursued the retreating "menagerie," as Sam called it, in all directions, running down their prey and falling upon it all together, as wolves do; only these "wolves" could climb trees.
It was evident they were scouring every yard of the forest as they came through, and searching every tree—every branch, high and low—that lay near their line of march. But they did not pursue their prey into the water, nor would they even venture upon the causeway.
"What a ferocious set of brutes!" Wilfrid exclaimed as he gazed upon the scene, half deafened by the chorus of growls, snarls, roars, and "trumpetings" now going on. "I don't wonder at the Indians taking fright and preferring to risk encountering our precious 'demons' here, rather than fall among yonder beasts. Why, they would have made mincemeat of the whole 'bilin', as Sam would say!"
"It's an extraordinary sight!" Harry rejoined. "I don't now wonder, either, at the Indians being so scared. Think what a pack there is yonder! Hundreds of them! And you can see, too, that, as the Indians said, they don't mind the fires a bit. Why, if we had been there we should all have been swept away, root and branch, so to speak—-rifles, revolvers, fires, gunpowder, and the whole show!"
"True for you! Yet, you see, they seem afraid of water! They won't venture even on to the causeway—which is a good thing for us, I'm thinking. We might have much ado to beat them off, even with our firearms, and behind these defences."
After a while the noisy, savage troop, finding their further progress barred by the water, re-entered the forest, and went off in another direction. A great quiet then succeeded to the late turmoil; but the Indians showed no undue haste to leave the shelter of the haunted ruin. They preferred to stay till the morning rather than run any risk of a return of the dreaded "tigers."
With daylight, every one took fresh heart, and the Indians sallied forth to ascertain how their encampment had fared, and Wilfrid, the doctor—now quite recovered—and Sam followed, to inspect the vicinity and discover what traces the ferocious visitors had left of their proceedings. Harry and Bennet, being still on the sick list, could not accompany them.
They found the whole shore littered with bones, mangled carcasses, the wreckage of the Indians' tents, and other suggestive proofs of the marauders' unsparing powers of destruction.
"The very trees seem, in places, to have been stripped!" the doctor observed. "The only other white man who has encountered these formidable animals, so far as is known, is Mr. C. Barrington Brown. He told how he and his party then escaped them by hastily embarking in canoes and crossing a river; and what we see here reminds me of the words in his book in which he describes the after-effects. He records that the passage of the brutes was 'like a withering scourge passing through the forest.'"
"Well, they are gone," Wilfrid made answer; "and if they are so rarely seen, we may reasonably hope that we are not likely to have another visit from them. That being so, we can proceed all the better to perfect our plans against our night visitors, who are likely to repeat their call."
Wilfrid, after puzzling his brains long and painfully over this enigma, had bethought him of the fireworks, of which he still had some left stowed away in one of the dry chambers of the ruin which they had selected as store-places. He had discussed the matter with the others that morning, and they had schemed out a fresh "plan of campaign."
About noon, to everyone's surprise, the great tame puma came trotting back, rejoining her friends as quietly and unconcernedly as though she had been away but a few minutes. One and another gave her a pat as she passed them by, but she went on without stopping to notice any one till she came to Harry, when she threw herself at his feet, and signified unmistakably that she expected a game of romps with him.
Harry glanced at her with friendly interest, and then suddenly went down on his knees beside her, and seemed greatly interested in something that was round her neck. After an examination of a few seconds' duration, he uttered an exclamation of astonishment, and called out to his friends:
"Wilfrid! Doctor! Come here quickly! See—see what I have discovered!"
The two came up wonderingly. Harry went on:
"Listen! Yesterday, to amuse myself, I made a rough leather collar, and fastened it round her neck. On the collar I wrote in fun these words, 'Queen of the Tigers'. Then, as an afterthought, I added, 'and my queen.' Now see what is written here to-day!"
He had taken the collar off and handed it to the other two. They gravely examined it, and then started, as they read the words and grasped the meaning of the addition.
"Do you see?" Harry demanded. "Do you understand? Some one has added there the words, 'Not yours, but mine'. Now what, in the name of all that's wonderful, does that imply?"
"Has any one done it for a joke?" the doctor asked, looking round. But he saw by the faces of those gathered near that they were looking on open-mouthed, as amazed as he was himself. "H'm! Well, as to the Indians, we know of course none of them could possibly have written those words. So we are thrown back——"
"Thrown back upon my first guess, which you thought so preposterous!" Harry put in excitedly. "Wilfrid, don't you remember what I said yesterday about this animal having her home away among human beings?"
"I remember, sonny. Don't worry!"
"But do you remember what you answered when I said I would send a message to those people?"
"No, sir. You sniffed contemptuously, and snorted out 'Dreams!' Who was dreaming—you or I?"
"Well, but I don't see it's necessarily of any use," Wilfrid retorted. "It may do us harm. These people may be hostile——"
"No!" returned Harry decidedly. "My instincts tell me that the person or people who tamed and trained that puma are of gentle, kindly nature; and I, for one, will trust them. You see if something good doesn't come out of this!"
The question was much discussed during the remainder of that day, but, as nothing could then be done, they had finally to postpone it to a more convenient date. They were busy, too, with their new preparations, and by night had their plan ready for action. Wilfrid, the doctor, and Harry occupied the look-out hut; while Sam and Bennet were concealed elsewhere.
About an hour after darkness fell, the circus began, as Sam afterwards put it. This time proceedings opened with the appearance of one of the great, glistening serpents, dangling from the upper air, and hungrily prying round the roof and walls of the hut. The others would have fired at it, but Wilfrid stayed their hands.
"Wait," he said, "and do not fire till I call out to you. Then fire away as hard as you can at all you can see—except myself."
This last proviso sounded an odd sort of addition to the other directions, but presently its meaning became clear to them.
Harry now noticed, by the carefully-shaded light of a dark-lantern, that his chum seemed to be what story-writers call "heavily armed." He had a whole range of revolvers and daggers stuck in his belt, round his body was his usual coil of rope, and, as a matter of fact, it afterwards appeared that he had also one of the Crambas' poisoned darts in a handy pocket.
Suddenly, he fired a shot from his revolver and then put it back in his belt. A few seconds later a blaze of light flared out upon the scene, and everything around stood revealed.
Wilfrid threw open the door of the hut and pointed upwards.
"Our enemies are yonder!" he cried. "You can fire away at 'em for all you're worth in any direction except where you see I am! They will be too much astonished to shoot back at you yet awhile."
Just then one of the glittering serpents came swinging and wriggling near, as though to seize them, when, to the terrified amazement of his friends, Wilfrid coolly rushed to meet it, laid hold of it above the open jaws, and began climbing up its body!
"He is mad! The poor lad has gone stark, staring mad!" yelled the horrified doctor, dancing and waving his arms.
The lights died out, and there succeeded a dark interval, during which vague sounds of struggling and muffled cries came out of the darkness overhead. Then Wilfrid's voice was heard:
"Harry—Harry! I've got him! I've got one of 'em! Shout out to Sam to light up again!"
But Sam had heard, and he turned on the lights once more, this time sending up a number of rockets, which illumined the sky above as well as the scene below. Then Harry and his companions, gazing anxiously upwards, saw something which made them open their eyes with astonishment even greater than anything they had yet experienced since they had started upon this eventful expedition.
THE sight revealed by the glare from the coloured fires below, and the brilliant stars of the rockets above, was indeed a strange one. The air overhead seemed to be filled with dark-winged shapes, great flying creatures, as weird and bizarre as any ever conceived, probably, by the very wildest imagination. They looked like huge, ungainly birds flying about in slow, heavy fashion. They were covered, too, with black feathers; but their clumsy flight had in it nothing of the graceful movement usually associated with feathered creatures. Strangest of all, they had human faces, and upon their wings were unmistakably human hands, which, in some cases, carried bows and arrows.
Barely had Harry noted these things when he heard Wilfrid's voice again, calling out to him to "catch hold of the rope."
Then he perceived his chum. He was seated astride one of these great men-birds, evidently engaged in a deadly struggle. The glittering serpent up which he had so audaciously climbed had disappeared, but in its place there dangled the rope, one end of which was fastened to his waist, the other end being secured to one of the posts of the hut.
Harry pointed it out to the doctor.
"See, there it is, doctor! Catch hold of it. I will come and help, too."
It trailed across the rampart only a few yards away, and the doctor ran to it and caught it. Harry hobbled after him and seized it but a few seconds later, and both then began to haul at it, in accordance with the instructions shouted to them, between gasps, by Wilfrid from above. They could see that he was battling with the creature to which he was clinging, and for a while it seemed very doubtful how the struggle would end; whether he would bring down his antagonist with him or be carried off by it. Other winged shapes began to draw ominously near the combatants, too, evidently waiting their opportunity to intervene on behalf of their fellow. Just then the lights died down, and everything was again swallowed up in darkness.
Staunton came rushing to the aid of his leaders.
"Haul away, Mr. Harry! Haul away, doctor!" he shouted, pulling vigorously himself the while. "Hurricanes an' senna! But we'll land one of them sharks at last, if Mr. Wilfrid do hold on!"
Wilfrid could still be heard calling, and his voice gradually sounded nearer and nearer, but no trace could they see of him in the darkness. The smoke from the fireworks, too, had floated up and begun to close in around them. Then came Wilfrid's voice close at hand. He spoke in a low, cautious tone.
"Gently! He's quiet enough now! I've got him safe enough! It's all right; but the others may he on to us. Look out for 'em!"
He had dropped upon the ground, and was standing beside them; but they could scarcely see him for the smoke.
"We must carry him down into our room below," they heard him say. "This place will not do for us now. The rest of 'em will be about here like a swarm of hornets directly."
All that his friends could make out was the dim outline of a dark mass which was extended horizontally a few feet above the ground. They could feel that it was covered with feathers; but it seemed to have no weight, as it were. It seemed to float like a piece of wood in water—or, rather, like an inflated balloon with just ballast enough to keep it from ascending.
Wilfrid started on the way down, pulling this singular burden—if such it could be called—with him through the air.
"Sam, look after Mr. Harry," he whispered. "And all of you keep your revolvers ready! Come after me as quietly as you can. Don't make any sound that can tell our enemies where we are. Harry, try to keep your feline friend quiet"—alluding to the puma.
They crept silently along, groping their way as well as they could, and reached the chamber Wilfrid had indicated without being molested. Arrived there, he set Staunton and Bennet to watch in the entrance, and continued his progress until he had gained an inner room, where lanterns could be used without showing a light through window or doorway.
"Now, listen!" he then said, when lights had been obtained. "The first thing we have to do is to examine this gentleman I have captured and see what he is like; and also, I may add, ascertain whether he is dead or alive. I had a desperate tussle with him, and, besides using upon him the poisoned dart I had with me, I had to treat him to sundry very nasty hard knocks. Indeed, he fought so hard that I fear he would have got the better of the contention, and carried me off instead of my carrying him off, if I had not surprised him in the first place, and got astride of him before he knew what was going on. Now, doctor, kindly tell us what you make of him."
The doctor proceeded to examine their captive accordingly, and, in order the better to do so, pulled away some of the feather covering.
"Why, it is a man—a man dressed up in feathers to imitate a big bird!" be exclaimed in astonishment.
Harry came to have a closer view, and looked intently at the face. The man had a skin which was of a dark hue certainly, but far from being as dark as an Indian's. The features were very intelligent, and even possessed a sort of cold, stern beauty. As Harry gazed upon them he started, and said, in a sort of awed whisper:
"Wilfrid—doctor, it is the same face that grinned into mine the other night. This is the creature—man, devil, whatever it is—who carried me off and flung me down upon the rocks! I am sure of it! His face looks somewhat different, far handsomer, now it is in repose; but I am certain it is the same!"
"If that be so, he doesn't deserve much mercy at our hands, then," said Wilfrid, grimly, "However, we must see what we can do for him, I suppose. Isn't he light, doctor? He is scarcely heavy enough to lie properly upon the ground! He seems inclined to bob up like——"
Here the speaker broke off suddenly and began feeling and probing the inanimate form about the ribs. Then he exclaimed excitedly:
"Why, of course! How absurd to think it never occurred to us!"
"What's that?" burst eagerly from Harry.
"This, Harry, my boy. This gentleman has on, underneath all this array of fine feathers, some sort of metal work fastened amongst his clothes. Now, don't you understand?"
"Not exactly. What do you mean?"
"Put your hand here. There! Can't you feel it? He is wearing round his body something that is like our magic jackets. There is but one inference—these people know all about Moradium, and understand its uses as well as we do! They work it into articles of dress, as we have done, and utilize it to enable them to fly. They must have considerable stores of it somewhere."
"What you say is true, lad, but it scarcely goes far enough," said the doctor, with hardly less enthusiasm in his tone. "These people, as you suggest, in all probability understand the use and application of the metal; not only, however, as well as, but far better than we do. Doubtless they have been accustomed to its use for years, probably for generations. You can see that they can do with it what we cannot do. They are not only by its means enabled to mount in the air, as you have learned to do, but they must also have some means of making themselves heavier or lighter, so that they can rise or sink, ascend or descend, at will, and, in addition, carry weapons, stones, rocks, and other weights. What we have to do, then, is to discover how they manage all this. Till we find that out they will still hold the advantage over us, notwithstanding our firearms; especially at night time."
"It's all very mysterious, but jolly exciting!" Harry exclaimed, with sparkling eyes. "It is clear we have accomplished one part of our mission—we have come plump upon the country from which our wonderful metal came."
"Yes, you're right, Harry. Hooroo!" Wilfrid cried. "As to the secret you refer to, doctor, we'll wrest it from these johnnies in time, never fear. Then we shall be as clever as they are, able to fly in the air and career about amongst the clouds as they do. What a time that will be! Now we will pull off the rest of these 'borrowed plumes,' and see what further we can learn of their owner's secrets."
They stripped off the feather dress entirely, cut away the cumbrous "wings" from the arms, and then there burst from them further cries of surprise. Beneath the outer covering of feathers they found a dress of such richness and beauty that they could do little at first beyond stare at it in mingled admiration and astonishment. They saw before them a man of fine stature, attired in a silk tunic, with curious designs upon it in purple and gold. Upon the breast was a serpent exquisitely worked in gold, and set off with diamonds and other precious stones. There were, besides, a belt in which was a jewelled dagger, and a sort of necklet of gold, in the form of two double-headed serpents twisted together. The eyes of these serpents were large emeralds, of such wonderful fire and lustre that the beholders started back on first viewing them, half thinking they were the real eyes of real creatures. Every other part of the man's attire corresponded, as regards the general beauty of the design, the richness of the materials used, and the cleverness of the workmanship.
The "magic jacket" which Wilfrid had said he could feel under the tunic, turned out to be a coat of mail of a very fine mesh, in which Moradium and gold were used in alternate links. Similar chain-armour covered the legs and arms, supplemented in places by thin armour-plates of Moradium, beautifully damascened with gold and silver. The whole was so proportioned that the ascending power of the Moradium used just about balanced the weight of the man's body, including weapons and all articles of dress, enabling him to float in the air in any position and at any height from the ground, whether two feet or two hundred. But nothing could they discover tending to throw light upon the secret which these people evidently possessed—the power to ascend or descend through the air at pleasure.
"Of course, these feather dresses and artificial wings have some meaning—some use," mused the doctor.
"And long practice with artificial wings would account for much, I suppose?" Harry suggested.
The doctor shook his head doubtfully.
"It would account for something, no doubt," he admitted; "but not all, by a long way. I am convinced there is some secret beyond all this, which we must make it our business sooner or later to find out."
While the captors were thus engaged over their prisoner, they had some trouble to keep the puma from him. That intelligent animal appeared to instinctively scent an enemy, and kept sniffing at the recumbent form and growling in uneasy, restless fashion.
"I should say that this man," the doctor presently went on, indicating their unconscious prisoner, "is a person of note among his own people—a chief, I have little doubt. If so, his capture may be a matter of more importance than we at present know of. Tell me, Wilfrid, what on earth induced you to essay such a wild venture as that you rushed into here? Truly, I thought you had gone mad! When I saw you deliberately seize that serpent, instead of taking shelter with us—"
"It was no serpent, doctor," was Wilfrid's unexpected answer—"or, rather, I may say it was a veritable brazen serpent. The thing was merely a mechanical imitation—a clever contrivance made to seize and hold a foe, as a long pair of pincers might do. You remember that one fell upon me last night, and then slipped off into the lake. I half suspected the truth then, as it ran clattering over the wall; and to-night, when I got a close view of another of the artful dodges, I could see through the deception plainly enough. I had already determined upon my plan of action in case my surmise turned out to be correct, and——"
"What! You had settled upon it beforehand, without telling me!" exclaimed Harry, in a hurt tone.
"Well, I was afraid, you see, that you would perhaps have done something to prevent me," Wilfrid answered, laughing.
"H'm, h'm, h'm! It's lucky you came off all right," the doctor grunted, still half inclined to chide the recklessness of the act. "But now that you speak of the poisoned dart, we have to remember that we know Moradium to be an antidote for the poison."
Just then there arose an outcry from the doorway, where Staunton and Bennet had been left on guard. Then there came the sound of shots, and Wilfrid rushed out to see what was the matter, and if need be aid his scouts. The doctor followed him, and Harry hobbled in the rear with the puma, leaving their captive, for the nonce, to himself.
AS Wilfrid drew near to the outer doorway he could see that his two scouts were engaged in battling with something just inside the entrance. There was some light outside from smouldering fires, which enabled him to see the two figures obscurely; and he could also hear a good deal of language—from Sam mostly. The sturdy hunter, however, usually quiet and almost taciturn, was also, on this occasion, giving free vent to his feelings. And not without reason, as was very soon apparent. The poor fellow was struggling in the grip of another of those brazen serpents, one of which Wilfrid had himself so successfully outmanoeuvred a short time previously.
It had "come wriggling in at the doorway," Sam afterwards explained, "and laid hold of Tom Bennet afore one could say 'Jack Robinson,' dartin' 'ere an' dartin' theer, as lively an' as knowin' as any real, live, thoroughbred snake could ha' done, An' as to shootin' it, why, the bullets just glanced off, and did the thing no more harm than peas from a peashooter!"
When Wilfrid came upon the scene Sam was pluckily doing his best to aid his companion and free him from the great jaws which had gripped him like an immense vice. This he was attempting at imminent risk of getting seized upon himself for his pains.
Taking in the situation, Wilfrid remembered how Harry had freed him from a like attack the night before by shooting at the holder of the brazen serpent, and he promptly determined upon similar tactics. Slipping past the combatants, therefore, he made his way outside, and, following with his eye the glistening outline of the serpent up into the darkness, he fired two or three shots in that direction. The manoeuvre was again successful, and the whole length of the mechanical monster came clattering down into the courtyard. The great jaws, with their metallic teeth, relaxed, and Bennet found himself free. He was then able to give his attention, for the moment, to rubbing the places that had been pinched, and ascertaining exactly what injuries he had received. In this he was assisted by Sam and the doctor. And Harry, seeing that matters had quieted down, returned to the room in which the prisoner lay.
He found him extended upon the floor, just as they had left him, and the youth seated himself to rest his leg after the late exertions and excitement. From the position he had chosen he could dimly see, through the outer room, the figures of the friends he had just left. He could hear indistinctly the sound of their voices; and as he watched them, the after-effect of the fatigue he had lately undergone began to make itself felt, his eyes blinked, and then dreamily closed.
Suddenly he felt an iron grip at his throat. He was thrown to the ground, and he then quickly realized that their prisoner, whom they had supposed to be lifeless, had regained consciousness, and having craftily and silently stolen upon him, was now pinning him down. And what he could not help remarking, even at that moment, as still more surprising, the man was no longer light as air, but was crushing him down with all the weight of an ordinary human being!
Looking up helplessly, he now saw, close over his own, the self-same face that had looked into his that first night in the ruins, and he knew that he was once more in the power of the remorseless, malignant being who had carried him up into the mountain shadows and dashed him down so mercilessly upon the rocks. The face, which had looked so coldly handsome in repose that he had only half recognized it, was now distorted by that same fiendish, triumphant leer, and he read in it his enemy's unspoken resolve to give him this time no chance of escape. Bitterly did he now reproach himself for the careless over-confidence which had given such an opportunity to this cunning foe. He strove in vain to cry out; the pressure upon his throat effectually prevented him from uttering so much as a sound, though he knew there were within call trusty friends who little dreamt of the peril he was in.
Slowly, deliberately, his enemy raised a hand carrying the jewelled dagger his captors had so incautiously left in his possession. He seemed to take a devilish pleasure in pausing to watch his victim's face ere he struck.
But just as the gleaming blade was about to descend, a most unexpected friend intervened. There was a loud growl, which swelled suddenly into a loud roar, and the next instant Harry's assailant was knocked over on to the floor, the dagger flying out of his hand and falling in a far corner of the room. The great puma stood over Harry's prostrate body, lashing her sides with her tail, and growling and showing her teeth, as if daring his enemy to renew the attack. But the latter seemed to have no stomach for the fight. He saw that the puma meant to defend her friend, and he also saw that the noise she had made had already attracted the attention of the four in the doorway. They were looking in his direction, and Wilfrid was evidently about to make a move towards him. He suddenly raised himself up, therefore, and made a desperate run for the doorway.
At once the puma sprang after him. But he had got a start of a few yards, and he ran with almost incredible swiftness across the space that separated him from the entrance. He thrust the doctor and Wilfrid on one side ere either, in his surprise, could take any effective means to stop him, raced past Bennet and Staunton, and gained the courtyard, where, to the astonishment of those two worthies, he shot up into the air and disappeared into the darkness.
A moment later followed the puma, which cannoned against Sam, and still further astonished him by first sending him rolling on the floor, and then leaping clean over him in her wild rush.
Sam got up, rubbing his legs and arms, and full of wrath and indignation against that "great blundering she-cat!" as he called her,
"Why didn't yer port yer helm?" he shouted after her. "Ye great, lubberly tabby! D'ye think Christians is made to be run down in the fairway by blunderin' navigators sailin' along without either lights or compass in this fashion?"
Wilfrid, meantime, ran inside to see what had happened to Harry, and seeing that he had got upon his feet and was unharmed, came out to the doorway again to see if anything could be done to follow up their late prisoner.
"'Tain't no use, sir," Bennet declared. "That chap simply jumped up into the air, and went out of sight. Theer be somethin' very queer about all this business, sir, I'm thinkin'. Theer be no knowin' wheer to have these 'ere critters, and no end t' their tricks an' strange, uncanny sort o' pranks!"
Finding any attempt at pursuit useless, Wilfrid returned to look after Harry, whom he now found giving the doctor an account of what had happened.
"The fact is," he concluded, "the Moradium coat of mail, in which the man was encased, counteracted the effects of the poisoned dart, and brought him back to consciousness—just as it did in my own case."
"Yes; we ought to have thought of that, and remembered it when we all crowded out to see what was the matter outside," Wilfrid declared.
"The doctor did speak of it," Harry reminded him. "It is my fault. When you were called away, I ought to have stayed and watched him till your return."
"You've had a terribly narrow escape!" said Wilfrid, with deep feeling. "By Jove! I wish now I had settled the brute while I was about it! But, I say, what a brick that puma is! Where has she got to? We ought to do something to show our appreciation of her conduct!"
"Offer her a vote of thanks, I suppose," returned Harry, laughing. "But it is rather strange, though, isn't it? This is the second time she has saved my life, poor beast!"
Wilfrid caught sight of the dagger which their vanished captive had left behind, and went and picked it up.
"This and yonder queer bird dress," he observed ruefully, "are all we have now left to show for our trouble. We might have found out something from him if we had kept our prisoner. As it is, our chance in that direction has gone—for the present, at all events—and we are as much in the dark as ever as to who and what these mysterious jokers are who are playing us such pranks and leading us such dances! What a rum-looking dagger that is! It feels so funny in one's hand!"
Harry took it and looked at it.
"I don't like it!" he said, with a shudder. "I was too near to feeling it between my ribs to care to see any more of it! You can have it, Wilfrid. Keep it as a trophy of your prowess in being the first to conquer and capture one of our mysterious foes." Wilfrid took it, and stuck it in his belt.
"Well, I think we had better try to get a little sleep," he observed. "It is near the time when our feathery friends usually leave us to ourselves, and I have arranged with Bennet and Staunton as to watching in turn. It is no use crying over spilt milk. Our prisoner has escaped, and talking won't bring him back!"
"You observe that he has gone without his artificial wings," the doctor remarked. "Bennet and Sam both aver that he shot up into the air 'like a skyrocket.' Yet he ran along the ground here, and pushed us aside as a man of ordinary weight would do."
"Yes; and he was heavy enough when he was lying on me, I can assure you," Harry declared.
"Quite so. Yet a few minutes previously, while he was lying insensible, we were remarking that he seemed to have no weight at all. We have thus, clear before us, three distinct states: First, he was light; second, he was heavy—that was while he was attacking Harry, and running across the room and passage; third, he turned instantaneously light again, and shot up into the air without the delay of a single second. Now, how on earth were these several changes so suddenly effected, here, under our very eyes, as it were?" But none could give an answer to the riddle, so the friends turned in for a sleep. And they were not disturbed again that night.
Next morning Wilfrid was up betimes and carefully went over every part of the ruins to see if their fugitive foe had left any tracks behind him. He reconnoitred the country for some distance around, too, but without finding any signs of their late prisoner. Evidently he had got away completely. And the more Wilfrid thought about it, the more he marvelled at the whole affair.
The Indians, he found, had not been attacked or molested in any way; but, as Inanda said, they had heard the firing in the night, and "guessed that another fight was in progress with the demons of the ruins."
"My white brother will do well to leave the ruins ere it be too late," said the Indian chief, in his own tongue. "The place is accursed, and those who allow themselves to be enticed thither do but hasten to their own doom!"
With which dismal foreboding the Indian went his way, shaking his head and looking very unhappy.
Wilfrid, however, thought otherwise; and, so far from allowing himself to be frightened away, he proceeded to make preparations for a prolonged stay.
"It is clear," said he to Harry, "that we cannot explore the lake without boats. Unless we set to work to build canoes or boats of some kind, our further progress is barred. We can explore the country to the south or to the north, but that to the west—which lies in front of us—is closed to us unless, or until, we have built some boats——"
"Or learned to fly, as our feathered enemies do," Harry suggested.
"Um—well, yes, that would get over the difficulty," Wilfrid admitted. "But, although we know now that such a thing is quite feasible, I do not think we are likely to stumble across the key to the puzzle just yet, so I suppose we must set to work at boat-building. But first there are a few things we can do to make ourselves safer against these harassing night attacks, and to render our quarters more comfortable while we remain here."
But as it happened, that night and the next passed without any further attacks from their mysterious foes. At the same time the puma disappeared and remained away, greatly to Harry's disappointment. His leg had got strong and well again, and he had been looking forward, he said, to going out hunting with her. On the third morning, however, he sought Wilfrid out in a high state of excitement.
"The puma has returned," he cried, "and brought another with her! And tied to her neck is a fresh message!"
WILFRID accompanied his chum to the place where, as it appeared, the two pumas were to be seen. There he found, sure enough, two in place of the one he had known and got used to. The strange animal was even bigger and more formidable-looking than the other, but proved, upon acquaintance, to be just as docile and sociable.
"See," Harry cried, "she has brought her mate! Isn't he a beautiful, graceful creature? And she has brought this message, too. I sent one first, I must tell you—in answer, that is, to the one you know of. I said in mine: 'Who are you and where do you live? Your puma is a beauty, and she saved my life.' Now this is the answer that has come back: 'Who are you and what are you doing out here? I am glad my puma helped you. When you have told me about yourself, I may perhaps answer your questions.' What do you think of that? Isn't it friendly?"
"It's very interesting," Wilfrid admitted. "The sender of the note writes, it strikes me, rather guardedly—yet he seems, as you say, friendly and good-natured. More, of course, one cannot yet say. It's a rum correspondence to have sprung up in this wilderness, anyhow!"
Standing around were the doctor and Staunton, and many Indians. All seemed interested in the stranger, save Sam, who had never quite forgiven the first puma for the way she had chased him up and down the trees. So far from viewing this addition to their company with approval, therefore, he looked upon it with strong disfavour.
"More cats! A great tom, now!" he snorted, contemptuously. "Flatfish an' ointments! We only wants a catsmeat-man with his barrer an' we shall be set up in aristocratic company!"
But no one else had any objection to make against the new arrival. He proved to be amiability itself and made friends everywhere; and when the two disappeared again—as happened next day—they took with them a fresh and longer message, which ran thus:
"I am an English boy, and I have come out here because my chum was coming. We are trying to find out about a new metal. Won't you come and see us? We are living in the old ruin on the shore of the lake.
Several days passed without any renewal of the mysterious night attacks. The spirits of the whole party improved in proportion, and, being now able to sleep undisturbed at night, they were able to undertake one or two exploring expeditions by day into the surrounding country:
Then one day the pumas turned up again, and brought with them a fresh message, which ran thus:
I am also a boy, and should like to see you. If you will come, my pumas will guide you, and I promise you that you will be well treated, you and all your party.
Harry was enthusiastic.
"Of course we will go!" cried he. "Myrola! What an uncommon sort of name!"
"And shall we take all our party?" asked the doctor, smiling. "I wonder if the writer has any idea how many we are? Probably he is thinking of a small prospecting party of half a dozen or so, and would look in astonishment or alarm upon a troop of fifty,"
"We shan't all go, of course—at first," Harry replied. "But we can perhaps take a party of moderate number safely."
"The question is, whether you'll come back safely," Wilfrid suggested.
But Harry would not listen to any objections or hints of difficulties.
"My instinct has trusted the owner of these animals from the first," he obstinately insisted, "and I won't distrust him now. So let us fix a day, and then make a start early in the morning."
"First fix your pumas," laughed Wilfrid. "It's no use fixing on a day if, when it arrives, your guides have already started off without you."
This was true, as Harry had to admit; and the question how to make sure of the somewhat wayward animals as guides, when required, gave him a good deal of thought. In the end, he penned them up in a large room, and put an open-work door at the entrance, which virtually converted it into a temporary cage. Then, the day before the one chosen, he released the last comer, with a message which ran thus:
We are coming to-morrow.
And the animal, evidently unused to being confined, and inclined to resent it, bounded off at once for his own home.
The next morning the party started upon their visit. The doctor, Wilfrid, Harry, and Staunton, with Inanda and a dozen Indians, made up the little troop, Bennet being left behind to look after the rest of the Indians. The remaining puma had had an extra strong collar fixed round her neck, and such was her impatience to get back home that three of the party had to be told off at a time to restrain her in leash. She led them a long tramp through forest and swamp, across open savannah, and through narrow gorges and passes of the wildest possible description, till at last they emerged upon the edge of a great plain, broken here and there by small clumps of scrub and a few thickets of larger growth.
The ground fell away from the spot at which they had quitted the forest, so that they could see for a long way ahead, and at once the attention of the leaders was attracted by some groups of people they could discern far out on the plain. Under the glass these groups appeared far more distinctly, and the astonished spectators gradually made out a scene that filled them with amazement and wonder. Clearly, a battle or fight of some kind was in progress between two parties, one several times more numerous than the other. That was the first thing the onlookers became aware of. The next thing was that the combatants upon each side were not Indians, as would naturally have been expected, but men dressed in shining, glittering armour, which flashed and sparkled in the sunlight.
They were all armed merely with bows and arrows, swords, spears, javelins, and such like old-time weapons—that much soon became apparent. Also, it was clear that the smaller party were hard pressed. They had taken up a position upon an eminence, where they were only partially aided by the screen afforded by a thicket of high, dark-looking trees; and here, surrounded by their foes, they seemed determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible. Certain figures which lay scattered about motionless upon the ground testified to the deadly persistency with which their foes were pressing upon them.
One other feature of the scene was too noticeable to be left out of account. Hovering above the rival groups were two odd-looking clouds of a deep purplish hue, which kept their positions, or moved slightly to right or left, independently of the light breeze.
As the travellers gradually made out the details of this most unexpected scene exclamations of astonishment and perplexity burst from one after the other in turn.
Suddenly the puma, which had been sniffing the air and straining with all her strength at the leash, broke away, with a sort of whining growl, and dashed wildly down the slope. Within a very short space of time she had broken through the encircling ring, and was seen to be making unmistakably for the hard-beset party on the low hill. Then, as if by magic, a great light burst upon the minds of the puzzled spectators.
"She's gone to help her friends, lads," Wilfrid cried, "and her friends must needs be our friends. They are the people who were coming to meet us; we will go and help them. See that your rifles and pistols are ready, and follow me! Moray to the rescue!"
And with that he, too, dashed down the slope; and the rest of the cheering party followed in a wild, mad scamper.
THE cheers with which Wilfrid and his companions rushed down the slope soon reached the ears of the attacking party, and those nearest turned at the sound and paused as they caught sight, for the first time, of the travellers. Then, seeing how small in numbers the strangers were, most of them turned away again, probably counting them not worth troubling about. A few, however, were, as it seemed, told off to watch the new-comers, and some of these shot at them with their bows and arrows, with the result that two of the Indians were wounded. Immediately, the Indians halted and replied with their firearms, and several of the archers were struck, two of them falling to the ground.
The sound of the firing was heard above the din of the shouts and cries of the combatants, and caused a longer and more general pause, during which Wilfrid noted that all those clustered together on the hill in the middle wore red tunics and carried red standards, while the dresses and banners of their opponents were dark purple.
"We must go for the purple-coated gentry for all we're worth, if we want to be of any use," Wilfrid called out, "or our friends in red on the hill may be overwhelmed before we can get near enough to help them. Sam, keep those Indians together, and see they don't wander off on their own! Now, lads, let it be a rush and a volley, and we will see if we cannot break through their ring!"
With another cheer, the little troop charged upon their enemies, who now, finding this new attack likely to be more serious than they had thought, made their dispositions to deal with it. They had scarcely as yet had time to realize the meaning of the weapons with which the strangers were furnished, or to comprehend their terrible power as compared with their own old-fashioned arms. But a rattling volley opened their eyes. They began to fall into confusion, and as the strangers still came on and delivered another volley, the purple-coated warriors nearest them suddenly broke and fled, leaving a wide gap, through which Wilfrid led the way at the double. As they swept on, they delivered further volleys right and left, and then made straight for the clump of trees beneath which the "red-coats" were sheltering. So successfully had this manoeuvre been carried out that they were through the gap and well up the hill before their astonished enemies had recovered from their first surprise. When, however, they saw these new opponents running up the hill with their backs to them, the instinct to pursue a flying foe overcame, with many, their fear of the strange weapons, and they began to run up the hill in the wake of the little party.
But Wilfrid had expected this, and, having secured a good start, was able to gain the timber and turn upon the pursuers in a manner that they little expected. In the face of the fusillade which met them from foes now hidden among the trees, they wavered, hesitated, and then turned and raced down the slope again even faster than they had run up.
"Ha! So far, so good!" Wilfrid commented, as he noted their retreat. "We shall have some breathing time now. Are all here?"
The replies were satisfactory. All had got through, and, though some had been hit by arrows, there were no serious wounds, and these the good doctor took in hand at once.
"You look after our new friends, here, You had better make yourself known to them, and explain matters before yonder crowd renew their attacks. I will attend to those who are hurt," he said to Wilfrid.
As it happened, however, as they had charged up the hill, the two pumas had recognized them, and had run forward to greet them with every manifestation of pleasure. This had conveyed to the leaders of the "red-coats," who had been watching their progress with lively interest, the welcome intelligence that these strangers were their friends, and they now came to greet them.
The first to approach was a man, almost a giant in stature, grey as to hair and beard, but stalwart and powerful-looking in figure. In visage he was swarthy, but not dark, and when he moved, it was with an easy, stately grace that at once excited Wilfrid's admiration.
When he spoke it was in English, but with a peculiar, old-world sort of accent; and in his whole manner there was an air as of an old-fashioned school of courtesy. He stepped up to where the doctor and Wilfrid stood, and, extending his hand, said:
"Welcome, good sirs! Welcome at any time, but thrice welcome in this our hour of need!"
The man's voice had in it something that was pleasant and commanding. The expression of his eyes, as he looked from one to the other, might have been that of some great conquering king, so full was it of dignity; and his glance, as it rested on the two lads, had in it a kindly twinkle that straightway won both their hearts.
"As to my name," he went on, "I am called Lyondrah. And which of you two," he asked, looking again at the youths, "is called Harry?"
Wilfrid indicated his chum; but the other, meanwhile, had put his hand upon Wilfrid's shoulder, and for some moments gazed steadily, with friendly interest, into his face, scanning it with a wondering look, as if he were seeking for some lost recollection.
Then he put his hand to his forehead and sighed in a perplexed fashion, and turning away, he addressed Harry.
"So you are our correspondent," he said, smiling. "Would you not like to see your friend, the owner of the puma which you have told us did you such good service?"
"I should, sir, very much," was Harry's reply; and he looked eagerly round, trying to discern amongst the crowd some one answering to his own idea of the "boy" who had invited him to come there.
Then there stepped forward a handsome, frank-looking youth, of about his own age, with laughing eyes and fair, curling locks, and skin almost as white as his own. Harry liked him at the very first glance; but, instead of going forward to greet him, he remained for a while staring with surprise and admiration at the vision which burst upon him.
The strange youth was attired in a dress which Harry mentally decided was the richest and most exquisite he had ever seen, even, as he afterwards said, on the stage. It was, in effect, a suit of very light armour, bright and glittering, the thin, polished steel very artistically inlaid with gold and silver, and set with precious stones, which sparkled and scintillated in the sunlight. Sword and dagger were in keeping with the armour, and the whole was set off by a tunic, scarf, and cloak of some soft-looking material, deep red in colour, and of wonderful richness and beauty. Upon his head was a helmet, surmounted by a white plume.
"Allow me, Harry," said Lyondrah, "to present you to your correspondent, Prince Myrola."
The speaker's voice recalled Harry to himself, and he cordially grasped the hand he saw offered to him.
"So you are Myrola—Prince Myrola!" he exclaimed, looking at him with wonderment still written on his face.
"Yes, I am the one who wrote to you," the lad said, laughingly. "You can drop the 'prince' and call me Myrola." Then he added, in a burst of confidence: "I like you! I am glad I answered your message and asked you to come. Some of my friends wanted me not to. They were afraid some trouble would come of it; but somehow I felt I could trust you."
"Why, that is strange," Harry rejoined; "for, do you know, it was just the same on my side. My friends were rather afraid you or your people might be enemies; but I said I was sure that those who had tamed and trained the puma must be nice people to know. You don't know yet all the good service your beautiful animal has done, and the debt of gratitude I owe her."
The two went on chatting, for there was now a pause, as by mutual consent, in the hostilities; and meantime the one called Lyondrah addressed the doctor, who was binding up an Indian's arm, and had meanwhile laid his rifle down beside him.
"Sir," said he, with his dignified, courtly manner, "may I borrow your rifle for a few minutes? It is a repeating-rifle, I see, and it is just the thing likely to be needed at the present juncture."
The good-natured doctor handed it to him at once, and Lyondrah took it and turned to Wilfrid. His shrewd penetration had already picked him out as the real leader of the party.
"You, my young friend," he said kindly, "have some military talent, I can see. I have sent back to our people for aid. In an hour, or perhaps less, we shall be reinforced, so that if we can hold out for that time we shall be safe."
"Oh, I should think we can easily do that, sir, with the help of our firearms," Wilfrid returned.
Lyondrah shook his head.
"Unfortunately there is an element of danger you have not taken into account, because as yet, I suspect, you do not even know of its existence. Do you see yonder cloud?"
"That curious-coloured, smoky cloud that hovers about yonder?"
"Yes. Watch it."
Filled with curiosity and surprise at the other's words, and even more impressed by his manner, Wilfrid stood and carefully scrutinized the cloud which had been indicated.
It hung over the earth, casting a dark shadow below it, like a mass of thick smoke, and he noticed that, though there was a slight breeze blowing from them, the cloud was actually travelling slowly towards them—that is, against the wind.
"Why," Wilfrid suddenly exclaimed, "it seems to me to be actually moving towards us against the wind! What does it mean?"
The cloud had come almost within rifle-shot of the stranger, and, instead of answering, he put the doctor's rifle to his shoulder, and seemed about to fire. But he finally put the weapon down again without discharging it, and shook his head with a disappointed air.
"There is another cloud over there!" Wilfrid exclaimed. "It is travelling against the wind, too. See, it is nearing the other one!"
The two clouds, in fact, drew closer and closer together till they joined; and then the whole dark mass rose into the air and spread slowly over the position occupied by the defending party.
AS the cloud floated up, and became hidden from view by the foliage of the trees overhead, a tense, brooding silence fell upon the scene, like unto the hush that precedes the storm. The encircling party had ceased from their attacks, and seemed to be altering their dispositions. Wilfrid could see that there was some marching and counter-marching going on, and he divined that these movements were probably the preliminaries to new and more determined offensive tactics.
He took advantage of the interval to look more attentively at those around him, feeling a natural desire to learn what he could of the people with whom he and his companions had thrown in their lot. So far, he had "been introduced," so to speak, only to two persons, the youth they called Prince Myrola, who had been the original cause of their presence there, and the one named Lyondrah, who was evidently a person of some importance amongst them, though his exact position or office had not been stated.
Looking round now, Wilfrid saw that there were perhaps a hundred men, all told, defending themselves against fully five hundred. As to who or what kind of people they were he could form no idea. They were not Indians, that much was certain. They were not exactly what would be called "white men." Their cast of countenance, nevertheless, was decidedly intelligent and prepossessing, and often handsome, especially in the case of the officers and those in authority.
Of the latter there seemed a somewhat large number in comparison with the rank and file, and Wilfrid guessed that when they had set out to meet him and his friends they had had no thought of being attacked on the way.
All were dressed in armour, which, even in the case of the commonest soldier, was of very fine workmanship, such as caused Wilfrid to wonder more and more as to where it could possibly have come from. The leaders and chief officers had been thus far too much occupied with their share in the defence to take much notice of the new-comers, but some of them now left their posts and came quietly up to be formally introduced. Lyondrah duly performed this essential ceremony, which, however, had to be carried out for the most part in dumb show, since, as it now turned out, these people spoke a language altogether strange to their new allies.
There was an exception to this in the person of one Rulenta, a good-looking young fellow, whose attire, conspicuous even among the many beautiful costumes around, proclaimed him to be a person of rank. This one acknowledged Wilfrid's greeting in English.
"My friends here," he said, good-humouredly indicating some who were standing near, "are now lamenting their ignorance—or, rather, their laziness; for that is the real reason that they are to-day unable to converse with you in your own tongue."
"It is amazing to me that any of you should be able to," Wilfrid returned. "And, indeed, everything I see surprises me. What is the meaning of this ancient armour we find you wearing in these days? What country are we in? Who is your prince yonder? I am all in a maze."
"Patience, my dear friend! The answers to all those very natural queries must wait till another time, for we must be on the look-out now for a fresh attack."
"What, then, are we waiting for? What are our foes waiting for, do you suppose?" Wilfrid asked.
His companion pointed his hand straight up into the air.
"They are waiting for the cloud," he gravely replied. Meanwhile, the one called Lyondrah had rejoined the doctor, and put to him some questions which surprised him not a little.
"You are, as I hear, a scientist, my dear sir," said he. "I also have dabbled a little in science, and though I lay no claim to any special knowledge, yet I have travelled much, and have visited the chief capitals of the world, where I have mixed with most of the savants of our era. I have kept myself abreast of the discoveries of modern research, and, until a comparatively short time since, I could have truly said that there were few phenomena which I could not explain upon scientific grounds. Yet since my arrival in this country—where I came as a stranger less than a year ago—I have seen and experienced such strange, such extraordinary happenings that I hesitate to speak of them to one like yourself."
"Why," returned the doctor, "that is precisely my own case. I—all of our little party, in fact—have met with experiences such as I could scarcely have believed had they been told to me by another, and such as I find it difficult, as you say, to account for upon scientific grounds."
"Ah! Say you so? Then that, perhaps, will make it easier for me to describe the danger and difficulty of the position we stand in here," said Lyondrah. And in his tone there was a sound of relief, "I know how sceptical scientific men can sometimes be in regard to such matters, and I feared your disbelief. Tell me, would you believe it possible that men can fly—not exactly like birds, yet well enough to float in the air, and move about in it freely?"
"I do believe it. I am bound to, because it has been demonstrated before my eyes since we came into this neighbourhood."
"Ah!" Again there was evident relief and satisfaction in the other's tone. "Now tell me, further, would you believe that such people, thus moving about at will in the air, can surround themselves with a sort of cloud—smoke, mist, whatever it may be—so as to be practically invisible, and conceal not only themselves but their movements, their plans, their mode of attack from their enemies?"
Then a great light seemed to burst upon the doctor's mind, and he replied, in some excitement:
"I think I begin to understand. Do you mean to say, my friend, that these flying men are up there in that cloud that has been hovering about us so strangely?" The other nodded.
"That is exactly the state of the case," said he. "It sounds so incredible that I scarcely dared to put it bluntly, as it were, to one like yourself, fresh from the outer world. Yet it is a fact that in some way these enemies of ours—or some of them, their leaders and rulers, to be precise—can not only fly, but can produce, at will, the mist or smoke which you have seen, and use it as a screen for their operations. This it is which makes their attacks so terrible to us, so difficult for us to meet, especially being, as we are, without firearms. Since they commenced this warfare upon the people with whom I have taken up my abode, these enemies have baffled me continually. We have to deal with foes so ignorant of modern discoveries that they know nothing of gunpowder or firearms, who come into battle armed only with such antiquated weapons as bows and arrows, swords, javelins, and so on. And yet they supplement these ancient arms with resources so unexpected, so inexplicable, that I, with all my up-to-date knowledge of the discoveries of modern civilization, am utterly at a loss for any scientific ground upon which even to explain them."
"They seem to be in possession of a certain curious—I may say wonderful—metal—" began the doctor.
"Ah, you know that! I also know as much. I have been endeavouring to obtain some supplies of that metal, and if I could do so I could submit it to analysis and experiment. I have all the necessary appliances at hand—and I dare say I could unravel some of their secrets."
"Why, all this is odd," the doctor answered. "That is the very object, we have had in view all along in wandering out here—that and no other, my dear sir."
"Ay, ay! H'm! Well, that being so, we can scarcely do better than join our forces and work together for our common purpose; and I dare to hope that we may, in the result, achieve success."
"I hope so, too. But how is it you have no firearms?" the doctor asked,
"We have some, but we have no gunpowder," was the reply. "I succeeded, at great trouble, in bringing a considerable quantity up from the coast, but it was all lost in an unfortunate explosion, due to treachery, as I have reason to fear. However, we must leave all such details till another opportunity."
Then the doctor summoned Wilfrid to his side, and they gave, between them, to their new ally a brief account of their own experiences. Lyondrah looked very serious at the end. Then he said:
"I can tell you two or three things which will throw a little light upon matters. The being who is the moving spirit in all this is named Feroutah, which signifies, in our common language, 'Lord of the Serpents.' He is also known as 'The Lord of the Black Mountains.' The country he rules is a large island called Teneabia, lying far out upon the great lake. My young friend here, Myrola, is the rightful prince of another island called Lyrolia, which is situated a good deal nearer to this shore. His island was invaded by Feroutah, he and his people were driven out of it, and they took refuge here on the mainland. Feroutah, however, not satisfied with turning them out of their own country, has recently followed them up, and seems bent upon exterminating them all, root and branch. He is the one you captured, and so unfortunately let go again."
"The one we caught!" exclaimed Wilfrid. "How do you know?"
"By the description you give, and, in particular, by the collar which you saw, and which he always wears about his neck—the collar of the twisted, double-headed serpents. When you had him as a prisoner you held in your hands the key to the whole puzzle—the means of ending this miserable war almost at one stroke, and, in addition, the opportunity of gaming access to their supplies of the wonderful metal; for he would have consented to almost any terms as conditions of ransom."
Wilfrid gave a long, low whistle.
"By Jove!" said he, after a long breath. "To think we had such a chance in our hands and let it slip!"
"Yes; it was indeed an unlucky slip. However, I imagine, from what you tell me, that your capturing him in that way has made him cautious. It convinced him that you were stronger than he expected—too strong to be assailed with advantage where you had then established yourselves, and he therefore desisted, for a time, in the hope of luring you out into some spot in the open country, where he could assail you with better hope of success. But the attack we are waiting for will be upon us shortly, and I must be brief. You must understand that for some reason Feroutah keeps the secret of his flying powers, and so on, to himself and a small band of trusted officers. Perhaps his supply of the metal is limited, and he cannot fit out more of his followers with it; perhaps he does not care to trust the rank and file with the secret. At any rate, there is the fact, and his method of making war is to lead and direct his people from above, hovering above them in a cloud, hidden from sight, but ready to give substantial aid at critical moments.
"In a little while—perhaps in a few seconds—that cloud, which is now above us, will descend and wrap all of us on this hill in a thick mist. Then, while we are comparatively helpless, the rank and file will rush in to overpower us. What can we do to withstand such tactics? This hill, which I managed to seize, is of some advantage to us, since the thick screen of foliage overhead is a partial—but only a partial—protection. Even firearms are of little use in a thick fog. So now you can understand our strait, my friends, and realize that it is a desperate one. I am truly sorry that you should have been brought into it."
"Oh, never mind that, sir," said Wilfrid. "Never say die! We'll put our heads together and find some way to circumvent these johnnies yet! Let us call Harry and Sam to our councils, and see what we can evolve out of our united brains."
This was done, but in the midst of the conference, the treacherous mist began to descend upon them like a veritable cloud of doom, and Wilfrid and his chum lost sight of the doctor and the rest of their followers, save Sam. For a while a deep and sombre silence fell upon the whole scene. The defenders waited with stubborn determination for the expected attack; and every ear among them was strained to catch the first signals, calling their foes to the charge. But they came not. Instead, there was heard much confused shouting; and the mist began to clear perceptibly. A trumpet call rang out loud and full, followed by others farther away.
Lyondrah, who was intently listening, held up a hand to enjoin silence. Presently there came over his face a look of satisfaction that told its own welcome tale to those with him.
"Hark!" he exclaimed, "You hear those cries, those trumpet calls? They tell me that our friends are at hand! Heaven be thanked! You will now be safe!"
He listened again.
"Hark! Some of those shouts are from our people, some are from leaders of our enemies. They have already seen our rescuers, and are calling to their followers to retreat! Now it will be our turn, and in the pursuit I want you, my friends, to do your part!" He drew out a whistle and blew upon it three shrill blasts in quick succession, repeating them again and again, with a short pause between each.
Then there came a great rushing of wings, and through the mist, now fast disappearing with a rising wind, a crowd of flying creatures were to be seen winging their way through the air.
"These are not your friends—Feroutah and his creatures," said Lyondrah, smiling at the wondering looks of his companions, "nor will they hurt you. I have trained them only to attack people in purple-coloured dress. Ah! Here come my four-footed auxiliaries, too."
Overhead a number of eagles were now circling round and round with loud screams and cries; and at the same time there rose upon the air other sounds at which Wilfrid started. They reminded him a little too much of the cries of the well-remembered pack of warracaba tigers to be altogether pleasant.
"They are our pumas," Lyondrah explained briefly. "They will not hurt you. They, too, only make themselves disagreeable to people in purple attire." Then in response to Wilfrid's glance he added: "Your friends are now safe. Our reinforcements came up just in time."
Reassured by his words, his three companions were able to give their attention to what was going on around them, and they found therein ample cause for new bursts of wonder and admiration.
The mist had almost gone and they could now see some distance on all sides. Coming towards them, at a long, loping gallop, they could perceive a whole troop of large animals of a dark, tawny hue, resembling the two pumas with which they had already become familiar, only somewhat smaller, racing along like a pack of hounds in full cry. In another minute Lyondrah was surrounded by the noisy pack, which crowded about him, snarling and quarrelling amongst themselves in their eagerness to get near enough to be noticed with a pat or a caress.
Wilfrid and Harry gazed upon this unexpected scene with breathless interest. They scarcely knew how to express their admiration and delight.
Sam alone "took no stock," as he expressed it, in the "menagerie," and viewed the scene with unconcealed disapproval.
"More o' them there cats!" he grunted. "An' a lot o' screamin' parrots now, too! I wonder where's the old maids as they all belongs to?"
LYONDRAH now led the way out of the thicket to the slope of the hill on the opposite side to that from which the travellers had come, and there they saw a considerable body of red-coated warriors approaching at the double. They came on with sound of trumpets and clashing and jangling of armour and accoutrements, and much waving of red flags and banners. They did not pause as they came up, but, saluting as they passed, swept on in the wake of their enemies, who could now be seen flying across the plain.
The group around Lyondrah was now increased by the good doctor, with the Indians, and the remainder of what had been the defenders of the hill.
"I want all those with firearms to follow me," said Lyondrah, "They will be invaluable to us in preventing our foes from getting away in their vessels. If we act carefully we may be able to capture most of their craft, and that will be a great help to us. At present we have no vessels of any sort or kind."
"We are ready, sir," Wilfrid returned promptly. "All my party are at your disposal. Some of the Indians' firearms, however, as doubtless you have seen for yourself, are rather a mixed lot—some of the bucks have good rifles, but others are antiquated specimens; some even have flint-locks, and so on."
"No matter, my son; they will all help. One thing more before we start—it is not our wish or our policy to shoot down a lot of these poor, ignorant fellows, but rather to frighten them and take them prisoners. Many of them are my friend Myrola's own subjects, pressed into the service of Feroutah against their will, and we do not wish to harm them, but would prefer to win back their allegiance to their rightful ruler."
"I understand, sir. Sam, keep an eye on the Indians and stop them from shooting more than is absolutely necessary. Now, lads, are you ready?"
They went off at the double, Lyondrah leading, with Wilfrid and Rulenta on one side, and Harry and Myrola upon the other. Behind these came the Indians, with Sam at their head, and, finally, about half of those who had been defending the hill. The remainder were left upon the hill as a reserve, and the doctor stayed with them. Before the leaders had gone very far they were joined by the pack of pumas, which had been held in hand by two officers; and all the time the flock of eagles wheeled and circled above Lyondrah's head, following him wherever he went.
"What a curious crowd of allies to have! I suppose they are to be regarded as allies?" Wilfrid remarked, as he ran beside Rulenta.
"Oh, dear, yes!" was the ready answer. "Lyondrah is a wonderful character! He possesses extraordinary powers in the way of taming and training animals and birds. He seems to be able to make them do almost anything he likes. You may think that you have here only a discordant, half-tamed crowd of wild, senseless creatures, but I tell you each one of the lot has its eye upon him, and is ready to obey his slightest gesture."
"Who is Lyondrah?"
"I do not know. No one knows. I don't think he knows himself."
"But how can that be?"
"Well, he says he thinks he must have suddenly lost his memory some years ago, because he is quite unable to remember anything previous to that time. So nobody knows who he is or where he comes from."
"But how did he come here?"
"Ah, that is quite a little romance in itself! Not far from the place where we are at present there is a tribe of wild, warlike Indians called Elambis, who have made several raids upon us and given us much trouble. So, to punish them and to stop their persecution, we at last made a great raid in return. We managed to surprise them, killed a lot of them, drove away the rest, and burnt and destroyed their settlement. Lyondrah was a prisoner in their hands, and was destined for a sacrifice at one of their forthcoming festivals. We rescued him, and he came back with us and took up his abode here. We found he was a wonderfully clever man, and it was not long before he became the trusted adviser and counsellor of our unfortunate young prince. And a very shrewd, able adviser he has shown himself, I can assure you. But for him, our arch-enemy, Feroutah, would have prevailed against us long ago, and either destroyed us altogether, or driven us away into the surrounding wilderness. It has been 'diamond-cut-diamond' between these two—Feroutah and Lyondrah—ever since he came amongst us. Lyondrah seems to have travelled extensively, and has told us all about the great world that lies outside, of which we had known and heard nothing at all before he came. He knows, too, many strange languages, and has taught them to some of us. And that is how it happened that I could understand you when you spoke, and could reply in your own tongue."
"It is a strange story—truly, as you say, a romance," Wilfrid answered.
And then the talk ceased, for they were nearing the objects of their pursuit, who, as it appeared, had turned upon their pursuers and were standing at bay. Somewhat curiously, they had seized upon a hill with a crown of trees at the top, much as Lyondrah had done before, so that the positions were now reversed, Only, this hill was likely to be more difficult to attack, having for the most part precipitous rocky sides.
"Why, there is the lake!" Wilfrid exclaimed. "I did not guess that we were so near to it. I had thought that the course we came had taken us farther away from it."
"There is a great bay here," his companion explained, "which makes a deep indent into the land. Do you see our enemies' fleet of boats yonder?"
"Yes. What a number! And they seem to have some vessels that are quite large, too. I expected to see merely a lot of Indian canoes,"
"Feroutah has some very good vessels indeed—larger than any you see here—but he does not appear to have brought them upon this expedition."
"What is the object of the stand they are making here?"
"I suppose the idea is that some are to hold us in check for a little while, to give time for the rest to embark."
However, Lyondrah, merely leaving a portion of his force to face the hill in front, swept round it with the remainder and attacked those who were making for the boats. Pushing forward, with Wilfrid and his party in the centre, he opened fire upon the enemy, and soon caused them to break away on either side. Through the gap he pressed on, and had all but gained the boats, when the detachment which had occupied the hill relinquished their post of vantage and came rushing down upon his rear.
Then ensued an obstinate fight, in which the bearers of the firearms were so hard pressed that their weapons were but of scant use. Into the midst of this mêlée came Lyondrah, laying about him with a great two-handed sword, which he handled more easily than most men could a light cutlass, his eagles whirling around him, and aiding him not a little, by flying in the faces of those who opposed him. Suddenly he was faced by a tall, purple-coated officer—a veritable giant in stature—armed with a sword bigger and heavier even than that which Lyondrah carried, and for a space a tremendous fight was waged between these two, the others on both sides standing aside, as by mutual consent, to watch the struggle. Wilfrid also stood and looked on for a few brief seconds; when, glancing round, and seeing that everyone's attention was attracted towards the two, he nudged Sam, and beckoned two of the Indians. The four silently ran down the beach towards the canoes, which were then without any attendants whatever; those who bad been in charge of them having left them to go up the bank to meet and aid their retreating friends.
Then the little party, under Wilfrid's directions, proceeded to loose all the moorings and set the vessels adrift. They succeeded in doing this in the case of all but two large canoes, and they had just got into one of these, when their proceedings were noticed by some of their enemies, who gave the alarm. The next moment there was a rush to the water's edge, and a great crowd of savage foes came racing down to seize the last canoe ere the adventurous four could cut her loose.
Wilfrid and his companions were in the last canoe but one, and had hoped to drag the other after them. There was, however, nothing to be done now but push off and put a strip of water between themselves and the yelling crowd covering the shore. Wilfrid caught up a paddle, the others followed his example, and the canoe shot out just as a dozen men who had scrambled into the one lying beside her put out hands to seize her. The other craft were all afloat, and were being carried by the breeze farther and farther out upon the waters of the lake. The four paddled after them, pursued by the last canoe; which was crowded with soldiers, and in which a dozen strong arms were wielding the paddles, sending her along at a rate which, it was clear, must very soon bring her alongside the object of their pursuit. Arrows began to fly about, too, and one grazed Wilfrid's face.
At this he turned to Sam.
"We were told not to shoot where it could possibly be avoided," he said, "and I have no wish to harm the poor beggars; but—"
"But if ye doan't stop 'em pretty soon, Mr. Wilfrid, they'll make mincemeat of us, as sure as cock-fighting" Sam growled.
Without making any reply, Wilfrid seized his rifle and fired at the man who had shot the arrows. He was standing in the bow of the on-coming canoe, and was just taking aim again. But Wilfrid's aim was true, the man's weapon fell from his grasp, and he himself tumbled amongst his fellows.
"Shoot at the paddlers, and at anyone who aims an arrow our way," Wilfrid said, himself firing another shot. This time one of the paddlers fell, and the rest, in panic and dismay, threw themselves to the bottom of the canoe, which then drifted aimlessly about on the water.
MEANTIME the fighting had broken out afresh between the Tenebians—as Feroutah's followers were called—and their enemies.
Lyondrah and his doughty antagonist had drifted apart without either having achieved any decisive result from the encounter, and now the former was leading his men again to the attack.
Standing a little apart, Harry and Myrola had watched all that went on both on shore and upon the water.
"Why are you looking so sorrowful, my dear Harry?" Myrola asked, seeing that his companion was looking at the receding boats with a very troubled countenance.
Harry laughed brightly.
"I did not know I was looking sorrowful, friend Myrola," he returned cheerfully. "I was only feeling a little chagrined to think what my chum yonder is doing, and that I am not in the swim, as we say in our country."
"Ha, ha! In the swim! Would you care to go in the swim, and for us to join your friend?"
"Why, I wouldn't mind; but we can't very well swim——"
"I will show you," said Myrola. And he put a whistle to his lips, and blew a shrill blast.
Instantly the two pumas that had visited Harry at Moray Castle came racing up to their master.
"Now, if you don't mind wetting your legs, the matter is easy enough," Myrola cried out, as he leaped with an air of boyish fun upon the back of one of the pumas. "Do as I do, and follow me."
Before Harry could reply, or express his private opinion upon this unexpected new departure, Myrola, on his puma, was pelting down towards the water, and Harry was racing after him. All Harry had to hold on by was the collar with which he had himself fitted the animal. It was a somewhat rocky and uncertain anchorage to trust to, as Staunton might have phrased it; but he managed to stick on, nevertheless.
When they plunged into the water, the going was easier, and Harry even began to feel at home. He was able, for the most part, to have both hands free, and to keep his rifle well out of harm's way. The thought even came to him that he might, if needs were, use it as one would on horseback.
Myrola, meanwhile, was swimming vigorously—or rather his puma was—out into the lake. To reach Wilfrid's party, without going too near to the canoe that had started in pursuit of them, he had to make a considerable detour. But the occupants of the canoe saw him, and, knowing who he was, the thought of the advantage it would give them, could they seize his person, and the ransom they might obtain, overcame their fear of the firearms, and they determined to attempt his capture. Some, therefore, immediately began paddling, so as to head him off, while others, with the same object, threw off some of their armour and actually leaped into the water and swam out boldly towards him. They went in couples, with naked daggers in their teeth, and showed themselves to be skilful and powerful swimmers. Spreading out in a semicircle, they speedily began to close in from all sides upon the object of their hardy attack, with the canoe following ready to back them up.
Then there commenced, perhaps, one of the most extraordinary hunts or fights, or whatever it may be termed, ever seen. Even the fighting on the shore was partially suspended again that the combatants might watch the contest. Every one there knew the prince, and none of his adversaries would fire an arrow at him, well knowing how much more advantageous it would be to their cause to capture him alive. With regard to Harry, however, the matter was different, and several arrows were aimed at him at first, till the chances of hitting their own friends caused the archers to desist and leave the issue exclusively to the efforts of the aquatic assailants.
Harry himself was now free to use his rifle—-if he could; but there was the difficulty. A few moments before he had been picturing to himself how easy it would be to make use of it if required; but now that the situation had arisen, he was inclined to fear he had overrated his equine-aquatic abilities.
Every time he attempted to bring the rifle to his shoulder, some sudden twist or turn of the lithe, active creature upon whose back he was precariously perched—or it might be merely some sudden twitching of the great muscles—would go near precipitating him into the water. And as Myrola and the swimmers drew nearer to each other, the young prince dodged now this way and then that, and Harry's feline steed followed suit. This made it more and more difficult to retain his position, and his chances of firing a shot—or of hitting what he aimed at—were growing less and less.
Meantime, Wilfrid, who had viewed their proceedings with lively interest, had fired two or three shots at his friends' assailants, but he had unluckily missed, and soon they became too much intermingled to make it safe to fire again.
Myrola, finding his direct route barred, turned along the shore in the hope that his active steed would out-distance their adversaries, and Harry, perceiving this, moved in a parallel line to co-operate in the manoeuvre. Suddenly Myrola turned his steed towards the land as though he had come to the conclusion that discretion was, after all, better than valour, and he intended to return whence he came. Harry perforce followed him.
Thinking to prevent their retreat, a number of the Tenebians upon the shore threw off as much of their armour as they could quickly dispense with, and plunged into the water to intercept them. Thereupon Myrola turned once more, continued for a short distance parallel with the shore, and finally stopped. Putting his whistle to his lips, he blew three shrill blasts, and then, coolly looking about him, seemed intent only on watching the swimmers.
This gave Harry an opportunity to draw up alongside.
"Tell me, Myrola," said he, "what shall I do? Shall I shoot one or two of these fellows now, or had I better wait till they actually attempt to touch us?"
Myrola, who had been looking the other way, turned round, and Harry saw that he was laughing.
"Wait a few seconds, and you shall see some fun," he replied. "What, I wonder," he went on, with a disdainful curl of his lips, "do these people think they are going to gain by following me about like this?"
"They hope to capture us, I suppose," Harry answered simply.
Myrola shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
"They would not dare to lay a hand upon me, for if one did, this faithful animal would knock him senseless with one blow of his paw, and down he would sink. Well, now I think we have had our little game with these gentry, so we will go and join your friends in the boat. Hark! Do you hear? Here they come!"
Fierce howls and roars were heard coming momentarily nearer. Myrola blew his whistle again, and a score of pumas raced down to the water's edge, and, plunging in with mighty splashes, commenced swimming rapidly towards the place where their master awaited them.
A stampede immediately set in among their assailants, who were now as eager to get away as they had before been anxious to attack.
Myrola remained for a while looking on at his discomfited enemies. Some of the pumas pursued them, and there would doubtless have been some sanguinary conflicts in the water, in which case the human fugitives would have stood but a poor chance indeed; but Myrola's whistle recalled them.
"I don't want to hurt the poor beggars," he said. "Many of them are my own people, Harry. It seems, as you can understand, hard that they should turn against me; but I can't find it in my heart to be severe with them. I wish that this war were over. I cannot bear to see men of my own country shot down and killed or wounded. They are not badly disposed fellows, I assure you; and many are fighting against their own inclinations, and only because they are forced to. I feel differently towards Feroutah and his merciless band of cut-throats, who commenced it all, and have persisted in carrying it on. They have committed great cruelties, and deserve no mercy. I hope you and your friends will help us to defeat them, and drive them back to their own country."
"That we will. I can promise that," said Harry heartily. "See, Wilfrid is calling to us! Why, he is in the other canoe! Hurrah! They have captured it! And you will have possession of all the boats!"
And so it proved. While the general attention had been attracted to the water-hunt, Wilfrid had quietly approached the other canoe. It had been left in the charge of two or three paddlers only, all the fighting men having entered the water to join in the hunt. The two Indians had slipped quietly overboard and boarded the canoe on one side, as Wilfrid and Sam had come up and sprung into it on the other. The paddlers were then quickly overpowered and bound.
As it was a larger craft than the one they had been in, Wilfrid sent the latter adrift for the time being, and the breeze, which was still blowing off-shore, though it had fallen very light, carried it slowly in the direction of the rest of the empty fleet.
"We can easily pick them all up when we want them," he observed to Sam, "and we don't want to be cumbered up with empty boats till we see how matters turn out on shore."
Myrola and Harry came up, their pumas still carrying them bravely; and they were welcomed into the boat, with many congratulations and handshakings on both sides. Then Myrola waved his hands, and Lyondrah, who had watched everything, blew his whistle, and the pack of sagacious animals turned about and returned to land.
Upon the shore there was a sort of truce. Feroutah's men, finding their retreat cut off by the loss of the boats, were inclined to surrender, and a parley had been arranged for that purpose.
The doctor had arrived upon the scene, and was talking with Lyondrah. He had become anxious to know how the two lads were faring, and had accompanied a small party who were on their way to the shore. He had been in time to watch the performances with the pumas, and had been laughing heartily. He now congratulated Lyondrah upon the results of the operations.
"Yes, we seem to have done well to-day, after all," Lyondrah began. "The boats captured, and now the whole detachment surrendering, and all accomplished with but very slight loss on either side! Those young friends of yours, doctor, are about the smartest youngsters——"
And then he stopped and looked up blankly into the sky. And when the doctor, following his gaze, looked up also, his face, but now wreathed in smiles of the most pleasurable satisfaction, became suddenly as blank as the other's.
And with only too good reason, for out of the sky, far above, came again that dark-hued, evil-looking cloud, seeming to grow larger and more villainous as it fell lower and lower. Rapidly it descended upon the canoe, and in a few brief seconds had completely hidden it from sight. Then were heard shots and muffled cries and shouts, but what was really going on in the midst of that direful cloud none of those on shore could tell. They saw tongues of flame shoot out this way and that, telling that those attacked were making use of their rifles and pistols; but beyond this nothing could be distinguished for several minutes. Then the cloud began to move, and soon it dawned upon the dismayed watchers that it was unmistakably receding before the wind across the great lake, and in some way dragging or towing with it both the canoe and its devoted occupants.
AT the time that the now hated cloud descended so unexpectedly upon Wilfrid and his companions, they had been upon the point of starting to catch up and gather together the little fleet of vessels which, empty and drifting aimlessly about before the breeze, were becoming scattered farther and farther from one another.
But the ominous shadow over their heads quickly gave them very different matter to think about. Rapidly it came down upon them, shutting out all view of what was going on around, and filling their minds with all kinds of vague apprehensions,
"Periwinkles and varnish!" exclaimed Sam, staring hard up through the lowering mist, in a vain attempt to discern what was going on above their heads. "We wants fog-horns an' searchlights when we goes out by daylight in this 'ere benighted country. I wonder, now, what little game they be up to this time? D'yer s'pose, sir—Hallo, what be that?"
"That" proved to be another specimen of the brazen serpent, of which they had already seen several examples, and to which they had consequently become, in a sense, accustomed. It no longer inspired the wonder and fear they had felt upon the first occasion, and Wilfrid at once resorted to the device which had previously proved effectual—he and Sara sent a few shots at random up into the overhanging cloud. But this time the remedy failed; and what was still more curious and disconcerting, some of the bullets fell back upon themselves, dropping into the boat or the water, and one—a flattened and misshapen lump—actually gave Sam a nasty knock on the head.
"Tinctures an' fish-hooks," Sam growled, as he vigorously rubbed the place that had been struck, "if the varmints isn't a-throwin' our own bullets back at us!"
Wilfrid was altogether puzzled. He watched the long, glittering, metallic contrivance twisting and wriggling about. What was it after this time? It did not, as he expected, try to seize upon any of them. What, then, was the meaning of this fresh move? He had not long to wait for the explanation. The great metal jaws seized hold of the head of the canoe, and a moment or two later he felt the craft give a jerk and a plunge forward. Immediately, he realized that they were being towed bodily through the water. He ran to the bow and examined more closely this novel kind of tow-rope. And then he saw that the whole affair was covered with short spikes, like a sort of elongated metallic hedgehog, rendering hopeless any attempt to climb it as he had climbed one before. Evidently, he thought, these people were quick to take hints. They were determined he should not scramble up any more of their "brazen serpents."
In the bottom of the canoe were some spears and a couple of axes left behind by the former occupants. Wilfrid seized one of the axes, and Sam, divining his idea, caught up the other, and together they rained blows upon the pincers-like contrivance which had fastened upon the stem of the craft; but it was all in vain. The metal was hard as the hardest steel, and their axes flew off from it, merely injured and blunted, Sam's ending by slipping out of his hand and plunging into the water.
Then they tried the spears, and made use of them as levers, endeavouring, with all their strength, to force the metal jaws to loose their grip upon the craft. But every effort failed; and presently, exhausted with their exertions, the four held a council of war to consider what was to be done.
"Let us jump overboard and swim for it," suggested Myrola.
Wilfrid shook his head.
"Won't do," he said. "When in the water we should be more at the mercy of our foes overhead than we are here, and in any case we should inevitably lose our firearms. Yet," he added, "something must be done. The sun is near setting, night will soon be coming on, and we are being towed, helplessly, surely, to the land of our enemies, bag and baggage. I can think of but one resource left to us, and that, I must admit, is a desperate one. Harry, come over here a moment!"
The two conversed apart for a few seconds in a low tone. Next, they turned to Sam and gave him, also in a whisper, a few brief instructions, and then commenced unwinding the cords which they now always wore round their waists.
In the same guarded voice, Sam was heard protesting and endeavouring to dissuade them; but his objections were overruled, the cords were firmly secured to the vessel, and leaving their rifles behind them, the two hardy adventurers suddenly shot up into the air and disappeared in the mist.
THE doctor, heavy-hearted, and nearly in despair, watching from the shore through his field-glass, was heard to utter a loud exclamation. A little later he called out to Lyondrah:
"Something has happened! See, they are coming back! Through the mist I can see the canoe emerging! They are all using paddles, and are coming fast this way!"
A little later, he cried again;
"What is that affair above the canoe? The cloud is thinner, and I can now see that there is something hanging over them like a great sail, which they are hauling along with them. What can it be? It seems to be on fire, too—or, at least, it is giving out long trails of smoke! Now I see the young rascals waving their caps! All must be well with them, then! My good friend, I cannot tell you what a relief this is to me!"
Lyondrah took the glass and peered through it in turn.
"Yes," he said, "I see your young friends. They are wonderful lads! I can make out Myrola, too. But as to what it is they are bringing with them, I am as much puzzled as yourself."
It was just upon sunset when the canoe came within hailing distance. By that time all was quiet on shore; the whole of Feroutah's followers had surrendered, and were being marched off in batches. On their way back the party in the canoe had come across a couple of empty boats and brought them in with them. In response, therefore, to a request from Wilfrid, parties of Indians sprang into the water and swam out to meet them. They tumbled nimbly into the empty craft, and straightway set off to bring in the remainder of the derelict fleet. The wind had fallen lighter, and they were able to accomplish this duty in a short time and without difficulty.
Meanwhile, the worthy doctor and Lyondrah were listening to the young people's account of their adventures, and examining, with surprise and curiosity, the trophies and prisoners they had captured and brought back.
Myrola described the towing process and the failure of their various attempts to loose the vice-like hold of the brazen serpent.
"Then," he continued, "these two pluckily determined to go up aloft and see for themselves who and what was up there. It was a most risky thing to do—desperate, I should have called it, had I known—and I should certainly have tried to prevent them if I had understood what it really was that they intended. However, they boldly made the venture, and they will tell you themselves what followed."
"It was this way," Wilfrid explained. "We saw there was but one chance of escape left, and that was to get up aloft and fight these johnnies on their own ground, so to speak. It sounds like a figure of speech, that, but it literally describes what actually happened, as you shall hear.
"Having made our little arrangements—i.e., made ourselves 'light'—we shot up into the air quite suddenly, running the cords attached to our waists quickly through our hands. We took only our revolvers, the dagger I had in my belt, and the ever-useful poisoned dart. Up we went, and, as luck would have it, we just shot up in the right place, and surprised the johnnies nicely. Imagine our surprise, when we got well up there, to find ourselves on the edge of a most extraordinary platform. It was a sort of 'magic flying carpet,' as you can see for yourselves. There we saw this affair"—here Wilfrid exhibited the trophy to his friends—"looking like a close-woven net, lying—or rather floating—spread out, in mid-air. Of itself, evidently, it was too light—had too much ascending power; therefore from the corners and sides, and from certain places underneath, hung weights dangling at the ends of short cords, all so adjusted as to counterbalance the ascending force, and to keep the whole concern just floating in the air, wherever it might be placed.
"The weights, however, served a double purpose. They were really hanging vases or braziers, and contained some burning stuff which gave off a thick, dark vapour—vapour, apparently, of a very peculiar character—and possessing some remarkable properties. For instance, although thick and smoky it did not affect the breathing or make the eyes sore. It scarcely ascended at all, but descended instead, like a heavy mist, forming, in fact, the moving cloud which has before puzzled you so much.
"As we rose through the vapour, we happened, as I have said, to find ourselves beside this floating net, and we grasped the edges and climbed on to it. Lying upon it, close at hand, we saw two of the men-birds like Feroutah; they were extended full length, their heads turned from us, apparently watching for something in another quarter. So intently were they engaged, and so quick and unexpected was our ascent, that we were upon them and had seized them before they could turn over. Then there was about as queer a rough-and-tumble as you can well imagine. The net or carpet, as I have called it, swayed this way and that, and kept going up and down in waves in a most perplexing fashion. Had we, or any of us, been of any weight, of course we should have overbalanced it and fallen off; but none of the four of us weighed anything at all, and therefore, as we rolled and plunged about, it was not our weight, but only our movements which set the thing bobbing about in such distracting fashion.
"As to our two antagonists, they struggled desperately and fought like cats; but the poisoned dart did its work, and in a little while they grew quiet. Then we had an opportunity to look round and examine the rum contrivance we had been rolling about on. You can see that it is a sort of fine network, resembling the coat-of-mail our prisoner, Feroutah, was wearing under his outer dress of feathers. It is probably a mixture of Moradium and some other metals. Along each side runs a rod to stiffen it and prevent it from buckling up altogether.
"When I first caught sight of the two feathered creatures stretched on this metal net, I was in hopes that I was about to have a chance to recapture Feroutah; but I quickly saw that it was not to be. We have caught two of his myrmidons, however—that much is certain—but not Feroutah himself.
"One thing, by the way, I begin to understand, thanks to this capture, and that is the reason that our firearms seem to have produced so little effect upon these feathered people. This network is practically invulnerable. When we fired into the air we simply fired against the under part of the net, and the bullets were stopped. Some dropped back; others, I find, are still embedded in it. Now, since these people wear this material under their outer coat of feathers—in itself no bad protection against anything less than a hard-nosed missile—it is no wonder that ordinary lead bullets do not frighten them much. Unless, in fact, we had happened to hit them in the head, or the hand, or the foot, we probably did not hurt them; and we had small chance of hitting them in such places, seeing that we could never see them, and could only shoot at random in the dark, or through this cloud.
"There is one other point. These chaps are wearing goggles—-a funny-looking sort of spectacles. Do you think it possible that they are some contrivance for seeing through the cloud-vapours they thus carry about with them? May it be possible that they could see us through it all the time, though we could not see them?"
"It is a curious suggestion," Lyondrah answered thoughtfully. "There may be something in your idea. At all events, you, my sons, have done splendidly. Myrola—all of us—will be deeply indebted to you; for, with these things in our hands to examine and analyse and experiment with, who can tell what secrets we may not be able to discover? Now let me see those two prisoners of yours. We will see presently if we cannot make them talk."
THE next morning the travellers, in the company of their new friends, started off by water in the boats they had captured from the enemy. They had bivouacked upon the scene of their overnight adventure, and, the night having passed without incident, they set out at sunrise to visit their hosts in their own abode.
The vessels captured from their enemies sufficed for the whole party, and they made a brave show as they traversed the waters of the lake in the sunshine, their banners waving gaily in the breeze. Myrola was talking to Harry in one of the leading canoes,
"When I sent you that message by Linta, and then, in accordance with the answer Lallo brought me, set out to meet you," Myrola was saying, "I little thought how much you would have to go through before I should actually welcome you at my home."
Harry had already learned that the puma which had saved his life was named Linta, and her mate Lallo.
"Do not trouble upon our account," he answered cheerfully. "We have had a fresh adventure, and that is partly what we came out to this country for. And we shall enjoy our visit all the more after what has passed. I feel sure we shall find it very jolly," he finished enthusiastically. "Everything is so quaint and so different from what we expected."
"Are you fond of hunting? Have you had much on your journey?" Myrola asked.
"We are awfully fond of it, Wilfrid and I; but we have not been able to get much on the way. For the most part, the forests were too dense and the undergrowth too thick for hunting. Then we did not come out here to hunt, you see, exactly, but to search for this metal you know of."
"Yes, I understand. And that is one reason why I was thinking that you might like to have a few days' rest—or, rather, change of adventure. We have some splendid hunting country round about us, and instead of dogs and horses, as you have (I have been told) in your own country, we have my pack of pumas and Lyondrah's eagles."
"Ah, that must be splendid—-to hunt with pumas instead of dogs, and to go hawking with eagles in place of falcons! By the way, what has become of the eagles? They disappeared in the afternoon."
"Oh, they went home as usual! Wherever they may be, however far away, they nearly always fly home to roost,"
"Well," said Harry, "I am ready for a little hunting, and I am sure Wilfrid is, too. But the suggestion makes me wish Tom Bennet were here. We left him in charge of our stores, and to look after the Indians while we are away."
"We will send and bring him here," Myrola answered. "Let him bring all your stores over here. They will be safer with us than in the old ruin. And he had better bring the Indians, too. We have ample room, and there is plenty of game in this region for them to live on. And if you are going, as I heard was proposed yesterday, to join your forces with ours, we can do with them all."
"I will speak to my friends about it," Harry finally decided, "and they will have a further talk with you and Lyondrah, Why, what is that stately pile yonder?"
"That is my home," Myrola replied quietly—"or, rather, it is my present abod. My real home—the home of my father and mother and of their forefathers—lies far out across this great sheet of water."
Myrola's handsome face grew clouded as he spoke, and as he looked longingly out over the lake Harry thought he saw traces of tears in his eyes. He therefore hastened to say;
"But this must be a wonderfully good substitute. I should think it a beautiful place to call home if it were mine."
And so, indeed, it appeared. Just at this time the little flotilla had rounded a rugged headland, and had come into full view of a magnificent bay. In the centre rose a steep, massive-looking rock, which jutted out into the bay, and upon it stood a great pile of buildings, not unlike the ruins they had called Moray Castle in general design, but built upon a grander scale, and altogether nobler in character, to say nothing of the very obvious fact that they were not in ruins. So far from that being the case, there was every evidence that they were carefully kept—from the flag-staff which carried the banner that floated out upon the highest tower, to the gay-looking gardens, with their fountains and broad terraces and balustrades, which lay around the principal buildings. There was something very noble and graceful in the outlines of the castellated towers as they arose one above the other, and the whole effect was so charming as to call forth from the strangers many exclamations of astonishment and delight. Behind the castle the ground fell away, and at some distance rose again in beautiful wooded terraces, ending in a rampart of distant mountains. Along the shore were numerous other buildings, giving evidence of the existence, in this unexpected place, of a small but wealthy city.
The travellers gazed upon the scene in undisguised amazement.
The doctor was delighted. "Why," he exclaimed, "what is all this? I almost think it must be some wondrous mirage."
"It is no mirage," returned Lyondrah, "but the actual home of Prince Myrola and the remnant of his people who are left to him. You will find, I think," he added, looking smilingly at Wilfrid and his chum, "that it is an improvement upon your late residence—Moray Castle, as I hear you call it."
"Why, that is but an old ruin, while this is a beautiful palace!" exclaimed Harry.
And then all of a sudden a thought flashed into his mind—a thought of the great difference between the shabby, worn, thorn-wrecked dresses of himself and his friends, and the rich attire of their hosts. In the excitement of the adventures that had come upon them he had had no time to think of this. Now he involuntarily cast some rueful looks down upon his own habiliments, which Lyondrah's quick eye saw and interpreted. He gravely answered the unspoken thought.
"You are troubled, my son," he said kindly, "because your clothes are travel-stained, and that in your preparations for the journey hither you had no time to bring changes of fine linen. You need not, however, feel uneasy on that account. I think I may venture to promise, in the prince's name, that he is in a position to remove all troubles upon such a score." Harry turned very red at this shrewd interpretation of what had been in his mind; but Myrola laid his hand upon his shoulder, and said earnestly:
"I do hope you are not worrying about anything of the kind, my dear friend. Of course, now you are going to be one of us, you must dress as we do, and it will be my great pleasure to fit you out from my own store. I have a beautiful suit of armour which will, I am quite sure, just fit you. It was made for me, but I have never worn it."
"A suit of armour!" exclaimed Harry. He stared first at the speaker, and then at Wilfrid, who was looking on in quiet amusement. "Why, what are you dreaming of? Wilfrid, fancy me in a suit of armour!"
"Oh, but you will find it absolutely necessary if you join with us!" Myrola returned, very seriously. "In this kind of warfare armour is a necessity."
"The prince is right," Lyondrah now put in, as he noted Harry's puzzled expression. "If you join with us, you must dress as the nature of the circumstances requires. I have had to do the same, as you see. I was very much against it when I first came here, but I had to give in. I soon found that to stand out was only to run foolish and unnecessary risks."
As they drew nearer to the palace they perceived a landing-place, where many people were gathered to welcome them, amongst whom were a number of soldiers, with their officers, drawn up on the quay.
They landed amidst cheers, the sound of trumpets, the banging of cymbals, and the waving of scarves and banners. Up many broad flights of steps, across many charming gardens and stately courtyards, they passed; then through galleries and corridors, till they entered a spacious hall, superbly decorated, and enriched with sumptuous furniture and carpets.
"Welcome, my friends, to my home!" then said Myrola. "Here you will be safe, and, as I trust, comfortable and at your ease, and will be able to take some much-needed rest after all your long and arduous travelling."
Such was the arrival of our party of travellers at the city of Raneema—so was the place called—and at the Court of the young Prince Myrola. How much was to happen before any of them turned their steps towards England again!
The prisoners they had captured, being offered the alternatives of returning to their allegiance or enduring imprisonment, cheerfully and gratefully chose the former; and, with the exception of a few, whom Lyondrah counselled his young master not to trust, they were all released and allowed to join in the festivities.
And wonderful festivities they were! The inhabitants of every class, of every age, joined in, and all made much of the strangers whose advent had contributed so greatly to the achievement of their first victory. Heretofore, it transpired, the fortune of war had been persistently against them. They had lost fight after fight, and all their vessels had been captured, so that the entry of the strangers marked the first day that any boat had entered the harbour for a very long time. And now, amongst the captured fleet, were many of their own vessels, which had been previously taken from them by their relentless foes. No wonder, therefore, that there were rejoicings, or that Wilfrid and Harry were lionized, fêted, and petted by the delighted populace.
All kinds of entertainments were provided, and at these Wilfrid and Harry were soon to be seen, attired almost as sumptuously as Myrola himself in silks and fine linen. At other times they were clad in armour, and passed many hours each day practising fencing and other martial exercises, with a view to becoming as accustomed to wearing their armour and as skilful in the use of the appropriate weapons as those around them.
Even Sam Staunton and Tom Bennet were constrained to follow their example. The latter had received orders to vacate the ruins, and bring all the stores, with the Indians, into the city, and this move was duly and safely accomplished. But when it came to dressing themselves in armour, a difference of opinion arose between the two friends. Bennet chose the plainest and lightest suit possible and clothed himself therein with evident reluctance. His father—he now averred—had been a tinman and tinker, and he, his son, had "had quite enough o' messin' about with tinware an' sich like" when he was a boy,
"But then, father," said Tom, regretfully, "had a barrer to carry his ironmongery about in. What a come-down in the world for his son—t' have to haul it about rattlin' agen his ribs like a common street hawker!"
It was quite otherwise with Sam, who entered into the thing from the first with gusto, thereby calling down upon his head many scathing remarks from his more sober chum. In particular, Sam excited his ridicule by admitting that he had all his life longed to wear a "shiny helmet with a white plume."
"That was a part of the Lord Mayor's show," said he, "I allus envied when I was a youngster in London town—them there feathery 'elmet-'ats, a noddin' an' a tossin' amongst the crowd. I used even to wish I could 'ave the 'elmet by itself, I thinks as a good stylish 'ead-gear like that sets a man's figger off better'n anything else ye can wear."
DURING the weeks which followed, Myrola invited Wilfrid and Harry to accompany him upon many hunting expeditions, and they soon got to know the surrounding country pretty intimately.
They also managed to become fairly intimate with the language, and were soon able to converse in it without the assistance of interpreters. They found it comparatively easy to learn from the fact that it closely resembled the Indian tongue they were already well acquainted with.
One day they started out for a long jaunt into an unknown region, and the Prince took with him a larger party than usual. Besides the two chums there were the principal officers of his court, with the Prince's chief huntsman and his men, the chief forester and his men, and a few Indians, including Inanda and Aronta. Staunton and Bennet were also of the party; but the doctor remained at home on this occasion with Lyondrah. In place of the barking and baying of hounds, they had, by way of woodland music, the loud roars and cries of the hunting pumas, and the screams of the flock of eagles. But, when required, those in charge of these auxiliaries could still them by a gesture, and they would then go about their work as silently as a cat stalking a bird.
It was an oppressively hot day, and by noon many of the party were jaded and tired,
"Dolphins an' teethin'-powders!" exclaimed Sam, as he pounded along beside Bennet, puffing and blowing with his exertions—he found it hotter work walking in armour than in the dress he had been accustomed to—"this be goin' 'untin' in style, mind yer! It'd make some of our fox-'untin' squires at 'ome open their eyes a bit, wouldn't it, mate?"
Bennet—ever laconic, and but little given to talk—looked at the waving plume which Sam was sporting, and made no reply. But something in his glance seemed to rouse the other's ire.
"Strike my flag, if ever I see such a rumbustrious sort o' chap as you a' got lately, Tom! Now, then, out with it! I doan't want no beatin' about the bush wi' me!"
"Well," returned Bennet quietly, "since you've put the words into my mouth, I'll say 'em. 'Strike yer flag!' Yes, ye ought to! The idea of a man o' your age carryin' that great, streamin' white peter at yer figurehead!"
This was in allusion to Sam's white plume. It has been hinted that the sailor had confessed to a weakness for wearing a headpiece with a feather attached; and, now that he had found that he was free to indulge in such a display, he carried it to some absurd extremes. So far, indeed, did he, in his vanity, now sometimes carry these vagaries, that the worthy fellow was becoming a bit of a laughing-stock to others as well as to Bennet, There seemed to be the beginning of a pretty quarrel between the two, when Wilfrid happened to come up alongside them. He was intent upon other matters, and did not notice the symptoms.
"Tom," said he, "can you tell me what that is on the side of the mountain up there? I've been looking at it through our field-glass, and pointed it out to one of the Indian chiefs, but they cannot make it out any better than I can,"
He handed his glass to the hunter, who looked through it long and steadily.
"I believe it's the head and part of the body of a great snake, sir, I think I can see its wicked-lookin' eyes,"
"Why, so I thought, but they all declare that it's too big for any serpent. No anaconda or 'camoodie' was ever half the size of that, they say,"
"Well, yes, sir. No doubt it must be a monster, but all the same I believe it's just a big snake!"
"Well," said Wilfrid finally, "I mean to have that big snake's skin if it be humanly possible, so here goes!"
As he spoke he commenced unwinding the cord about his waist. The armour he now habitually wore was very light—for armour—still it altered considerably the conditions of his "magic jacket," rendering it unnecessary to carry so much in the way of counter-weight about his person as he had formerly done. Therefore, he had not much to dispense with when he wished to make use of the ascending powers of the jacket. He was quickly ready; and, without heeding the cautions of his henchman, was soon on his way up the face of the cliff.
The country round about was of a terrifically wild, savage character. The place at which they had halted was almost shut in by towering mountains and dark, frowning precipices, and the Indians were showing signs of superstitious alarm. They were evidently uneasy at the thought of a long wait in this weird valley. Wilfrid, however, troubling nothing about their misgivings, rose in the air at the end of his rope, rifle in hand, hoping to get a shot at the monster reptile, which he believed he had marked down. And, as a matter of fact, when he had risen to a level with it, but at some distance away, he saw clearly that he had been right. It was an immense serpent, of a kind he had never seen or heard of before. Just then the creature turned and disappeared from sight. That is to say, its head disappeared into a sort of tunnel in the rock, but it was some time before the whole of the monstrous body had uncoiled its great folds, and followed the head into the tunnel. Wilfrid fired a couple of bullets at it, but the only effect seemed to be to somewhat accelerate its deliberate movements.
Then Wilfrid signalled to those below to draw the rope nearer to the rock, but by the time this had been done the snake had gone. Catching hold of the ledge on which the reptile had been lying, Wilfrid peered into the tunnel, and could see that daylight came in at the other end. It was high enough for a man to walk upright in, and the serpent, big as it was, occupied but a part of it. In the space of a few seconds, it had passed out at the other end, leaving the passage clear; and Wilfrid resolved to explore it.
First, he filled his pockets with small pieces of loose rock and fastened others at his back until he had gained the necessary weight; next, signalling to those below to let go, he drew up the cord, and wound it round his body. Then he entered the mysterious tunnel.
The place smelt rank and sickly from the fetid breath of the scaly monster, but he held on, and soon came to the other entrance and glanced out. And then he beheld a sight such as had never entered into his imagination by day, or his dreams by night.
He looked down upon a valley of no great extent, roughly circular in shape, and completely shut in by perpendicular rocks on all sides. The centre was a greensward, with great boulders lying about; and scattered around, in a sort of orderly confusion, were hundreds of serpents of all sizes, colours, and kinds, from the mighty monster which he had followed, and which he now saw more plainly, amid many others smaller in bulk, yet scarcely less formidable, such as anacondas, pythons, and boa-constrictors, to the dreaded "lord of the woods," and from these, again, down the gamut of venomous snakes, to the small but deadly little green snake. All these were holding up their heads and swaying them in a rhythmical movement to a sort of wild, strange music, that rose and fell in measured cadence, but whence coming he could not discover. Strangest sight of all, in the centre of this horrible assembly, high upon a great boulder, his hand—which held a kind of staff or wand—stretched forth, and moving in time to the repulsive, swaying heads—there stood Feroutah, "The Lord of the Serpents!"
Wilfrid gazed, fascinated, upon the extraordinary scene, when suddenly he heard a slight sound behind him, and looking round, saw, to his horror, that another monstrous serpent—probably the mate of the one he had followed—had just entered the other end of the tunnel, and was crawling slowly but surely towards him!
SCARCELY had Wilfrid disappeared into the tunnel than Harry and Myrola who, with some others, had gone on in advance, came back to look for him. They had been desirous of asking him some question, and had waited for him to overtake them. Then, as he had not done so, they returned to seek him.
Great was Harry's surprise and strong the disapproval he expressed when he understood exactly what had occurred. He felt that his friend had been unduly venturesome, and was inclined to blame both Bennet and Sam for not having somehow managed to prevent him from starting upon so risky an adventure.
"Whiting and senna! Why, Mr. Harry," exclaimed Sam, "ye knows what Mr. Wilfrid be when he takes a notion into his mind! Ye knows as he sticks to his intention as obstinate like as——"
"As you do to that idiotic sheaf o' feathers on yer head!" growled Bennet. "To tell the truth, Mr. Harry, we both did our best t' urge Mr. Wilfrid against his idea; but 't'warn't no good. An' now—Well, shall I try to climb the cliff arter him?"
"No, no! I'll go myself, Tom! Here, catch hold of these things!"
And, with that, Harry began to divest himself of some of his superfluous weight and to uncoil the rope he wore round his waist. He had scarcely completed his preparations when there was a loud outburst from those around him. Looking up and following the direction of their horrified gaze, he perceived that another enormous serpent was just entering the hole into which, he had been told, Wilfrid had disappeared from their sight a little while before. Harry lost no time now in exclamations or questions. Thrusting the rope into Bennet's hand, he rose rapidly in the air, rifle in hand, till, as Wilfrid had done, he arrived on a level with the ledge. The great reptile was crawling slowly into the tunnel, and already perhaps half of his monstrous length was inside.
Without hesitating, Harry fired bullet after bullet into it from his repeating-rifle, and evidently with good effect. After some mighty writhings and contortions, the big reptile presently lay still. Probably some of the bullets, fired at such short range, had broken the vertebras. But this result, satisfactory as it was in one respect, proved but a barren victory in other ways; for its dead body now completely blocked up the tunnel. That it was a tunnel, and not merely a cave, Harry could clearly perceive, and he knew, therefore, that Wilfrid must have gone through, and must now be out in some valley on the other side. The question, therefore, now was—how would he get back?
Had Harry but known Wilfrid's perilous situation just beyond that length of tunnel, he would have been horrified indeed. As it was, he was terribly anxious, not knowing where his chum had gone, and seeing no means by which he could return. For, looking into the tunnel, he saw that the dead snake lay "hunched" up, so to speak, so completely blocking the whole passage that it was only by the gleams of light which came through two or three narrow crevices that he was able to guess that it was really a tunnel. To attempt to remove the snake would be hopeless. He glanced up the face of the rock above the tunnel. It was all perpendicular cliff, towering up many times the length of his rope, and no one could possibly climb it; so he saw that there was no chance of his being able to get to the top of the ridge, and look over, to see what was on the other side. Reluctantly he gave the signal to be drawn down, that he might take counsel with his friends below.
Arrived upon the ground, he explained the position, and called for all the rope that could be got together. Most of the party had lariats; but, when these had been collected and laid tentatively upon the ground, it was quickly manifest that they would not, if fastened all together, make a line long enough to reach to the top of the ridge. While they talked and considered, time went on, and Harry became every moment more anxious about his chum.
Then Myrola made a strange suggestion. He put it forward in a somewhat half-hearted way, because it was such a risky thing to propose that he scarcely liked the idea of Harry's trying it. But, as nothing else could be devised to overcome their difficulties, he finally revealed his idea. Certainly it was a daring plan, and at first it almost took Harry's breath away, as it did indeed Sam's completely, for he grew purple in the face, and shook his splendid headgear clean off his head while vainly struggling to utter vehement protests against its adoption. The plan was nothing more nor less than that Harry should commit himself to a flight in the air, fastened to one or two of the tame eagles.
It was not quite such a mad scheme as this crude description would make it appear. It seemed that Toldra, the prince's chief huntsman, had been experimenting with an idea of his own in this direction, and had, by way of preparation, devised an ingenious sort of hood to fit on the eagle's head, after the fashion of the hoods which falconers formerly used with their falcons. But Toldra's special hood had shuttered eye-holes in it for the bird to see through when they were open, the shutters being closed, when required, by a spring controlled by strings.
As is well known, a bird partially blinded—i.e., deprived of the sight of one eye—flies to the right or the left, in the direction of the eye it can use; and Toldra argued, and had proved to his own satisfaction by some experiments he had made, that, by means of this device, eagles equipped with it could be directed in their flight as surely as a horse could be by a bit and a pair of reins. Toldra, Myrola now explained, had evolved this contrivance, thinking it might be of use to Wilfrid and Harry in connexion with their "magic jackets," but had kept it a secret from all but his master until he had experimented with it further.
"I scarcely thought his idea practicable when he first mentioned it to me," Myrola declared; "but I told him I would reward him well if he succeeded, because I was sure it would then please my friends. So he has been working away at it since, and I have kept his secret till now, when it seems to me that the time has come to put it to the test if you think well enough of it. Or, if you will lend me your 'magic jacket,' my dear Harry, I will make the experiment for you, and go in search, in this novel fashion, of our good friend Wilfrid."
But Harry would not hear of this. If anybody was going to take the risk, he would take it himself, he insisted; and not even Sam's strenuous remonstrances produced any effect upon his resolution.
"Mermaids an' oysters!" Sam cried. "Ye blamed me, but a while since, for not stoppin' Mr. Wilfrid's little capers, and now ye're goin' to try somethin' a thousand times more cranky! Mother Goose was a sensible creature by the side o' this prank!"
But Harry good-humouredly put his protests aside, and Toldra produced his hood. It fitted on to one of the eagles, it seemed, by a sort of harness which fastened round the neck and body. From this depended two long straps to be fastened to a belt under the arms of the "passenger." From either side of the upper part of the hood a smaller, lighter cord ran, these two lines being, in fact, the "reins." The eagle selected was a very tame bird named Quilto. Toldra declared that he was sure Quilto would carry out his part of the arrangement safely and cleverly. Myrola interpreted his statements.
"I have made many trials with him," he averred, "at the end of a long line, so he is quite used to it. Mostly, the trials were made with a dummy figure, but two were performed with one of my own children. The bird carried him beautifully, and seemed proud of his new accomplishment,"
Thus assured, Harry hesitated no longer. Having adjusted his weight so that he just floated in the air, the straps, one longer than the other, were duly fastened to a belt round his body, and with the "reins" in his hand he stood ready.
Toldra gave a cry which the bird seemed to understand. It spread its great wings, and the next moment Harry felt himself whirled up into the air.
The start was rather jerky—decidedly jerky; but, once momentum was gained, the bird seemed to sail along almost without an effort. There was only sufficient motion of the powerful wings to cause a cool fanning, and this, in the heated air, was a grateful sensation. The motion was an easy, gliding swing, not unlike that experienced in skating, as the bird swept upwards in a series of wide, graceful circles, and before he had been two or three minutes in the air Harry felt sufficiently at home to be able to look round.
He had already risen above the top of the ridge he wished to see over; but the general direction had been away from it, so that he was still unable to look into the valley beyond. Below, he could see his friends standing staring up at him, looking already quite small, yet not so far away but he could distinguish each one, and even perceive the varied expressions of apprehension and admiration with which they regarded his progress.
As, taken by himself, he was no weight, his being thus attached to the great bird in no way impeded its movements, or but very slightly. The resistance of the air was the only retarding force, and this evidently did not trouble his feathered "motor" in the least.
Then he pulled at one of the "shutters" and closed it, whereupon the bird gave a slight dip, but quickly recovered itself, and altered its course in accordance. Thus Harry soon found he could direct its movements with certainty and ease. Finally he pulled at the second, or longer, of the two straps which connected him with the bird—which had so far been hanging loose—and this had the effect of depressing its head and directing their course downwards. This part of the performance, he found, required care, and he had two or three times to loosen the strap and allow the bird to soar again momentarily on their way down; but eventually they arrived, with a grand circling sweep, upon the ground alongside his wondering friends. They all set up a cheer at his safe return, and crowded round to shower their congratulations upon him.
But even as they talked there came a most unexpected interruption in the shape of a shower of arrows from above. They clattered against the armour of some, and these fell harmlessly to the ground; but a cry from one of the Indians told that one at least had done mischief.
Harry glanced quickly up. On the top of the ridge he saw several of Feroutah's dark-coated soldiers, some of whom were taking aim again in his direction. But one or two seemed to be shooting at some one or something down below them on the other side. In an instant it flashed upon him that they were firing at Wilfrid, who was down in that valley, and could not get back!
"And I have been wasting precious time instead of going at once to seek him!" he groaned.
"Get under the cover of those trees, all of you!" he went on, addressing Bennet and the rest. "Tom, Sam, do the best you can till I return. Fire away at those fellows up yonder, and keep their attention occupied as far as you can. I am going to look for Wilfrid!"
He gave a cry in imitation of Toldra's, and immediately the obedient eagle opened its wings and once more soared aloft, carrying its plucky passenger, like an aerial "trailer" in its wake.
WHEN Wilfrid, standing near one end of the tunnel, heard faintly the sound of Harry's rifle as he fired from the other side of the ridge at the great reptile, which was already half-way through, he guessed what was going on, and waited in trying suspense to see what the result would be. He was in a cruel dilemma. If Harry should fail to kill the brute, it would be upon him in another minute, and he could not move a single yard from his present position without exposing himself to Feroutah, to say nothing of the great serpents around. On the other hand, if the reptile were killed in the tunnel, his retreat would be still cut off, that was certain, unless Harry could drag the body out from the other side—a feat he was not likely to be able to accomplish.
Just where Wilfrid stood—or rather crouched—he was hidden from Feroutah by a big boulder, and when, a little later, he saw that his chum had killed the snake, he felt he had gained a little breathing time in which to think matters out. One thing only was clear, however. The dead serpent remained in the tunnel, as he had feared, completely stopping it up. He turned and peered cautiously round the edge of the boulder at Feroutah. He recalled Lyondrah's statements about this mysterious being, and asked himself whether he would not be justified, considering all things, in shooting him now, when he once more had the chance. But he was obliged to admit that, even in the case of such a monster as this man seemed to be, he could not shoot him in cold blood from behind a rock.
The strange, weird music continued, and the whole horrible array of serpents congregated there swayed and swung their heads and necks to and fro in accord with its wild cadence. Wilfrid looked round on all sides, and marvelled as he looked. The place was full of snakes of all sizes, living and dead, for there were heaps of bones. Of a certainty, this was a valley of serpents. It deserved that name, he thought, even more truly than that celebrated valley in which Sinbad the Sailor found himself when he was left behind by the great "roc." In that case the adventurous mariner found the valley was also full of precious stones. Would the analogy, Wilfrid wondered, hold good in that respect also?
The music ceased, and most of the reptiles, as though tired out with their exertions, forthwith lay flat on the ground and remained motionless. Then Feroutah was joined by two of his people who appeared suddenly—Wilfrid could not say from where—and the three began to walk about, looking down as they went, as though searching for something, and now and then stooping as though picking that something up.
So surprised was Wilfrid at these strange proceedings, that he forgot his own critical situation in his speculations as to what they could possibly be hunting for. In a few minutes, however, they all three turned their backs upon him and walked off towards the other side of the small valley, and there Wilfrid, craning his neck above the rock which had hidden him, saw him disappear in a hole in the rock very similar in appearance to the tunnel upon his own side.
Thus he was left alone, but in very evil case. Two great dangers he had escaped—the great serpent Harry had killed, and being seen by these relentless enemies. Looking about him, he now noticed some odd-looking pebbles, which were so remarkable in appearance that he stooped and picked one up. It was iridescent, and shot forth vivid, coloured gleams, somewhat as an opal might do. His curiosity was roused, and he picked up all he could see and, his pockets being already full, he put these curious specimens into the breast of his jacket. Then he turned his attention to the problem of getting out of this serpents' den, but he was at a loss to find a way of escape.
He could not scale the cliff, that was certain; it was too steep. Overhead, a group of small trees hung out almost horizontally. Their roots had a precarious foothold in the rock not far from the top of the ridge. If he were to "make himself light" and shoot upwards, could he seize one of those trees in passing, tie his rope to it, and then, from there, crawl to the top? It was a desperate expedient—one that could only be justified by a counsel of despair, for if he missed the trees He shuddered at the thought of what would happen—of where his aerial flight would end beyond the clouds above.
Wilfrid felt strangely tired and languid. His armour, which had always before seemed light enough, now felt curiously heavy and oppressive. He was inclined to attribute this new feeling to the air of the place. No doubt it was rank with the pestiferous breath of these horrible reptiles. Ah, what was that?
He looked hurriedly round as a loud, warning hiss fell on his ears, and then he saw something which sent a thrill of horror through his whole body, and caused a cold perspiration to break out over his skin. A short distance away, their bright, cruel-looking eyes fixed intently upon him, their gaudy, orange-vermilion bodies wriggling slowly towards him, were two "mapanas"—the dreaded, pugnacious, death-dealing "lords of the wood." Like one entranced, he gazed at the two terrible creatures; then, suddenly realizing the necessity for action, he made up his mind to take the risk he had been thinking of just before and make a dart for the trees jutting out from the cliff overhead.
Hastily, but silently, and with as little movement as possible, he took from his pockets the various pieces of rock he had put into them as make-weights, and dropped them softly beside him.
Soon he had cleared them all out, but—horror of horrors—he did not rise into the air! Instead, he remained there where he had been standing, as solid, as heavy, as immovable as though he had no "magic jacket" beneath his clothes—as though he had been chained down!
For a moment or two his head seemed to swim. He had heard of some serpents being able to fascinate their intended prey. Was he actually now in that state? But no! Serpents could not fascinate his magic jacket—influence the strips of "good old Moradium," which had never before failed in their wonderful powers. What, then, had happened? And all this time the mapanas were crawling nearer!
Suddenly he remembered the opal-like pebbles he had put inside his breast. Though there was no reason to suppose that their trifling weight could make much difference, he half mechanically put his hand inside his jacket and pulled them out; and then a wondrous thing happened. As he drew out one pebble after another, the feeling of weight, which had been pinning him down, as it were, became sensibly less. He passed the stones from one hand to the other; and as he pulled out the last he shot suddenly up into the air, just as the two snakes came rushing forward and made their spring!
They just missed him. He had that satisfaction as he sailed rapidly upward. But what was to happen next? Before he had time to think, he was entangled in the clump of small trees which jutted out from the side of the precipice. He had his hands full, and could not catch hold of a branch, yet he felt himself rising through the clump, the foliage giving way before him.
In one hand he held several of the queer pebbles; in the other his rifle and more pebbles. That was how it happened that he had no hand free with which to seize a branch or small stem. How or why it had come about that he had all the time clutched those pebbles so tightly he could never afterwards tell. It was a wonder he had not dropped them involuntarily when he found himself struggling among the foliage.
Perhaps, even at that critical moment, some sort of perception or suspicion of the truth had flashed across his inner consciousness. But be that as it may, what is certain is that, instead of throwing the pebbles away, he hastily bundled them into his pockets, and then, laying hold of the stem of one of the small trees, paused to take breath and look round. Below him was the dismal Valley of Serpents. He could see over it more plainly now, and the sight made him shudder. He could see thousands upon thousands of skeletons. It seemed a veritable dying-place for snakes.
Looking up, he found that he was still some distance from the top of the cliff. His plan now was to pass his rope round one or more of the trees and let himself up, so to speak, with a double line, against the face of the rock, holding on to it as best he could till he reached the top. Once there, he could fill his pockets with pieces of rock, draw up his line after him, and he would be in comparative safety. Then he would walk along the summit till he found some way to get down to the valley on the other side, and so rejoin his friends.
Such was his plan. It seemed a very good and feasible plan in theory; but, like many another good plan before it, it was upset by circumstances.
All of a sudden something came whizzing through the air, buzzed through the foliage in his vicinity, and fell straight down beneath him. Then there was another whiz, and something came, with a bump against his breast, but glanced off from his armour, and also flew down below. It was an arrow. He looked up, and there, not a hundred yards away, at the top of the ridge, he saw several soldiers in Feroutah's dark uniforms, two or three of whom were shooting arrows down into the next valley; while a couple were paying a similar attention to himself. His position was now suddenly rendered most awkward and dangerous. He was astride on the somewhat slender stem of a bushy young sapling, on which he had to maintain a hold, or he would shoot up into the air. It stuck out horizontally from the rock; and, so far from his hold depressing it, it was the other way about, for it bent upwards with him.
Holding on as well as he could, by locking his legs together underneath, he brought his rifle to his shoulder and fired at one of his foes, who was just drawing his bow to shoot another arrow at him. The arrow went wide, and Wilfrid had the satisfaction of seeing the marksman topple over and fall, with a shriek, down into the valley below.
"Good!" thought Wilfrid. "He'll find a welcome down there—among the serpents!"
A second bullet caught the hand of the other archer and sent both bow and arrow flying away from him.
Realizing that in another minute he would have to reckon with these men's companions—who, for the moment, had their backs to him—Wilfrid took advantage of the breathing time now afforded him to make his position more secure on his precarious perch. He passed his rope once or twice round the tree-stem upon which he was seated, and pulled the bushy head of the tree up at his back, fastening it there with his line. He was then in a fairly comfortable position, with a "back" to lean against; whilst the foliage he had pulled forward to some extent screened him from his foes.
"Now," he muttered, as he raised his rifle to his shoulder, "I can deal with those johnnies pretty easily, I guess. Let 'em all come, if they like! They'll find I'm ready. Hallo!"
There was a tearing, rending sound, and the young tree's roots tore away from their slight hold upon the rock, and the next moment Wilfrid found himself, seated in a sort of bower, sailing upwards towards the clouds.
THE weight of the leafy bower—such it may aptly be termed—in the midst of which Wilfrid was seated, and to which he had lashed himself, so far counteracted the upward tendency of his "magic jacket" as to render his present ascent a somewhat slow one.
As he rose he saw more plainly the black-coated archers on the summit of the rocky wall which divided the two valleys, and he observed that some of them had turned round and were staring at him in astonishment. They seemed, indeed, too surprised to think of shooting, and allowed him to pass within a short distance of them without sending a single arrow after him.
As he rose higher and passed above the ridge, he saw an eagle rising with a circling sweep from the valley upon the other side. Something peculiar about the bird attracted his attention, and he noticed that it had two long straps hanging from it. Following these with his eye, what was his amazement to see his chum, Harry, swinging along easily at the end of them!
The two gradually drew nearer to each other as they rose, until they were within speaking distance.
Each stared at the other for a short space in bewilderment. Harry was the first to find speech again.
"Why, where on earth are you going to?" he cried.
"I—I—I'm sure I don't know, Harry," Wilfrid admitted, ruefully. "I only know I am jolly glad to meet with you, though how you come to be sailing around in this queer fashion I can't for the life of me imagine. There seems to have been very little time since I last saw you to pick up such an accomplishment. However, you appear to be quite at home. The thing is, do you think you could take me in tow, and haul me downwards? Otherwise I'm very much afraid——"
"We'll try," said Harry. "Get some loose line ready, and toss it to me when I pass close to you."
By this time the two were far above the archers and beyond reach of their arrows. Harry and his bird swept round in a great circle, and on their return passed a few feet beneath Wilfrid. The line was dropped and caught, and a few seconds later Wilfrid was being towed quietly along a little in the rear of his friend. It was found, however, that some manoeuvring was required before they could start upon a downward course. The eagle evidently did not like this extra passenger, and Harry had to manage matters very carefully. So he kept for a little while cruising about in the upper air to get the bird used to it.
After a little trouble they were sailing round in wide circles, quite comfortably, almost alongside one another. Wilfrid took advantage of the interval to tell his story very briefly. When he came to the part about the curious pebbles he pulled some from a pocket and showed them to Harry.
"Did you ever see stones like these?" he said. "They are so unlike anything I have ever seen that it has occurred to me that they may be the things Feroutah was hunting about for in that awful valley. But what could he want with them? How can they be of such value as to make it worth his while to search for them amongst all those horrible reptiles? However, as I was telling you, I picked them up and placed them inside my jacket, so Hallo!"
Wilfrid, while talking, had suited the action to the word, and immediately found himself sinking down, earthward. In his surprise, he withdrew his hand from his breast, and at once he rose again.
Then a great light burst upon him.
"Eureka!" he cried. "Harry, old chap, I've discovered Feroutah's secret! I see now what he was after in yonder vile den. Halloah, boys! We've got the great secret, and we'll beat the crafty old fox now upon his own ground! These are the touchstones!"
A little experimenting proved that Wilfrid's inference was correct. It was found that the mysterious pebbles, when placed in contact with the strips of Moradium, or close to them, had the remarkable power of neutralizing their anti-magnetic or ascending property. Thus, by merely putting them inside the breast of his jacket, in varying fashion, Wilfrid was able to rise in the air or fall at pleasure; and, handing some to Harry, the same results promptly followed.
"There are enough for the two of us," said Wilfrid gleefully. "Now we shall be able to meet old Thingamy and beat him at his own game!"
"Not yet, I think, Wilfrid," observed Harry soberly. "With these curious pebbles we can, I perceive, rise in the air and come down again as we choose, but we cannot get about. When up we shall be at the mercy of every breath of wind, blown here and blown there, and of what use will that be against people who seem able to fly about as they please? No; we've something more to learn yet, I'm thinking. And, meantime, what do you want better, by way of an aerial steed, or motor, or whatever you like to call it, than our feathered friend here? But we must get back to our friends below as quickly as possible. Now that my anxiety about you is set at rest, I am troubled as to what may have happened in our absence. There may be more of Feroutah's people about than I saw, and I am afraid perhaps something we did not expect may have happened since I came away."
When they rejoined the rest of the hunting party, however, they had the satisfaction of learning that their enemies had drawn off, and their return to the city was effected without molestation.
A FEW days after the adventure recorded in the previous chapter, a great storm arose upon the lake, lashing its waters into waves more like those upon an ocean shore than such as one would expect to see upon an inland lake, however large. This storm had momentous consequences for the travellers—consequences which led to a complete alteration of their plans, and which precipitated an unlooked for ending to their quest.
The storm lasted for three days and three nights, and at its height a small flotilla of strange vessels arrived off the shore, evidently in distress. They were large and well-built ships—compared with the vessels the travellers had previously seen—and had evidently been driven out of their course by the terrible weather. One vessel was wrecked; but those on board were saved by the courageous action of Harry and his eagles, who took a line out in the face of the storm and so established communication with the shore. The other vessels managed to find safe anchorage, and rode out the hurricane with no mere loss than that of a few sails and some of their deck fittings.
The people brought ashore by Harry's plucky efforts, backed up by his friends on shore, turned out to be the personal attendants of the owner of the vessels. He was in one of the other ships, but they had with them his son, a child of five, and his nurse, and these were brought safely to land through a raging sea.
When the storm had somewhat subsided, a boat came ashore from one of the vessels which had managed to anchor in time. Out of the boat there stepped a man of about middle age, with a tall, commanding figure, bearded and brown, but not darker in complexion than the Lyrolians. This stranger was very richly dressed in a costume in which were conspicuous a silk tunic and cloak, with a cap, and a feather fastened by a jewelled clasp. He wore also a sword and dagger, both with jewelled hilts.
After him there came half a dozen men, of whom five, by their dress and obsequious mien, seemed to be servants, or perhaps slaves. The other looked like a friend or companion of the first-comer. The latter asked to be conducted to the prince, or ruler, of the city, and was brought before Lyondrah, who, had been, by common consent of the nobles and principal inhabitants, invested with the powers of governor.
The stranger announced himself, speaking in the language of the country, as the father of the boy who had been rescued from the wreck, and he came to thank those who had succoured him. His attendants were the bearers of many rich presents which, he said, he desired to offer to those who had helped to save his children. His name, he added, proudly drawing himself up, was Divonus, and he was the son of Zyrla, one of the wealthiest and most influential merchant princes of Mellopia, the largest island on the great lake.
Lyondrah received him with the courtesy which came so naturally to him, and which caused Harry to whisper to his chum that he was sure "no real king could have played the part with more noble, genuine dignity."
The next day, the stranger's father landed, and came to pay his respects to Lyondrah, and add his own thanks to those of his son for the rescue of his grandchild. Like his son, he was tall and commanding in figure, but he was, of course, much older in appearance. Indeed, with his flowing white hair and beard, he looked a very patriarch. He was introduced into Lyondrah's presence, and marched forward with the air of one accustomed to be treated with deference, yet willing to "honour the king." But no sooner did he catch a clear view of Lyondrah than he started, passed his hand over his eyes, as if to make sure he was well awake, and his whole manner changed.
Instead of the quiet, easy confidence he had at first exhibited, he seemed greatly agitated. He looked this way and that, and remained standing where he was, instead of going forward.
Lyondrah extended his hand with one of his rare and gracious smiles.
Zyrla looked at it, then, with bowed head, walked up, took it, and raised it respectfully to his lips.
"My lord," he began; and then abruptly stopped as he raised his eyes and saw the expression upon Lyondrah's face.
"Call me not 'lord,'" Lyondrah said, with a slight frown, as though in rebuke of what he considered undue servility. "Here I am but an ordinary citizen like yourself, good sir. By an accident, I am acting for the lawful prince of the country, but I am not therefore lord of the country."
"I understand, my lord—I should say, sir," answered the old man, changing from "lord" to "sir" suddenly, as he caught another disapproving glance from Lyondrah's piercing eyes. "You shall be here, to me, whatever it is your pleasure to be called. By what name, then, shall I address you?"
"My name is Lyondrah," was the answer.
"Lyondrah! Ha, I understand!" Then he added, as if to himself: "Of course! of course! It has a similar meaning."
"What are you talking about?" Lyondrah asked, rather sharply. "What is that you are saying about a meaning?"
"Only, my lord—I mean sir—that in our language 'Lyondrah' means 'Lord of the Isles.'"
"Is that so?" he returned. "That is curious, and methinks I guess now why you called me 'lord.' But tell me, good sir, more about yourself and your country."
Zyrla fixed his eyes in a peculiarly searching fashion upon Lyondrah's face as he replied, as though to note the exact effect of every word.
"I am Zyrla," he said, almost as though he were reciting a lesson from memory, or repeating something with which he knew his hearer was already well acquainted,
"I am Zyrla," he said again, as if to gain time to recall what he had to say, "and I am one of the chief citizens of the Isles of Mellopia, now the most prosperous, the most wealthy, the most powerful of the nations of the Great Lake. We are still nominally subject to Feroutah, of the Purple Mountains, but we have almost thrown off his sway in fact, though not in name. He is still nominally our imperial ruler, and draws a small tribute, and we have a king appointed by him—one Crezonus by name—but we have our own laws and government, and we do pretty much as we please, for our nation has increased and multiplied, while Feroutah's country, Teneabia, has dwindled both in numbers and in power. Feroutah is now afraid to go very far in imposing his will upon us, in case he should arouse opposition, which he is not now in a position to crush as easily as he formerly could have done. Indeed," added the old man with a sigh, again fixing his eyes strangely on Lyondrah, "the time is well suited for the return of our lawful king, if he yet lives, who was driven from his country by Feroutah, then his vassal, long years ago. If he were to return and show himself now, the whole country would rise as one man, Feroutah's nominee would be driven out of the land, and peace and happiness would return to us. Not only peace and happiness, but self-respect, my lord—I mean sir—for we do not respect ourselves so long as we continue to bear the rule of an usurper who is but the tool of a former vassal of our true lord—one not worthy to sit in the same house with our own lost, lawful king!"
Lyondrah listened to this speech with close attention, but with a somewhat puzzled air. At the end of it he asked:
"And do you suppose, then, that your own king is still alive? Do you expect that he will return to you?"
"We do believe he is still alive, my lord—I mean sir—and we live in hope that he will yet return and deliver us from the yoke we still bear and the disgrace that is ours. And the astrologers and soothsayers of my country have made prophecies concerning him, and they declare that the time for his return to us is close at hand—that it has, indeed, almost arrived."
And again the old merchant fixed a strange, burning gaze upon Lyondrah. The latter, however, turned the talk into another channel.
"I hope," he said kindly, "that your hopes may be fulfilled. But meantime, tell me more about yourself—how you came to be driven on to this coast."
"When this storm arose and blew our vessels out of their course, I was on my way to Feroutah's country to do business in his chief city and at his court. There I am well known, and I pass to and fro—as do all my servants and attendants—without question. If you desire to know more and would visit his country, or my own country of Mellopia, you could do so secretly if you so pleased. I have a large retinue and could take you amongst my friends and followers without any being the wiser—you and a few of your chosen friends."
Lyondrah looked keenly at the patriarch.
"I see your idea," he finally said, "and it may suit my purpose. I will consider it."
THE suggestion made by the patriarch Zyrla bore fruit a week or two later. Lyondrah decided to visit Mellopia with him, with a view to finding out whether the inhabitants of that country would be willing to join in an alliance against Feroutah,
It was arranged that he and Wilfrid should voyage with the merchant and his party, and that one vessel should stay behind to bring on Harry, Prince Myrola, Dr. Vivian, and others of the travellers at a later date, if matters developed favourably.
Wilfrid was therefore kept busy for a time assisting in Lyondrah's preparations, while the doctor and Harry loaded the reserved vessel with their arms, ammunition, and such of their belongings as they deemed it wise to take with them.
In the interval, Harry devoted himself to training his eagles, and one day a splendid idea suddenly suggested itself to him—Why not work the "magic carpet" captured from Feroutah's people into an aerial car which could be drawn through the air by tame eagles?
How he succeeded will hereafter appear.
Lyondrah sailed away with Zyrla and his party and reached Mellopia, where matters appeared so favourable that Wilfrid was sent back in one of their swiftest vessels to hurry on the departure of those left behind.
He met, on his way, the ship which had been left behind, and in which were packed some of their spare arms and ammunition, and other stores. The doctor, who was on board with Bennet, explained that, the wind being favourable, Harry was following them in his "aerial car," with Prince Myrola and Sam.
Greatly astonished at this extraordinary news, Wilfrid kept on his course, and sure enough, two or three hours later, perceived Harry coming sailing towards him in his improvised aerial chariot drawn by a select team of half a dozen eagles, with a few more free birds circling round them by way of keeping them company.
Harry swept round, turned, and swept back, and finally, after some trouble, manoeuvred so as to pick Wilfrid up by means of a rope thrown over the side of the "car." Then they continued their journey in the wake of the ship in which the doctor was travelling.
In the "car," Wilfrid found, besides his chum, Myrola and Sam.
"How is it," he asked, after he had got over his first surprise, "that yon manage to make this ricketty concern carry so many?"
"We've all got 'magic jackets' on, don't you see," Harry answered. "We've made use of the Moradium coats of mail captured from the Feroutians at the same time as the contrivance we called the magic carpet. We're all 'light weights' here—no weight at all in fact—like you yourself."
"But Sam—what is he doing here?"
"He said he would take the risk; so I dressed him up in one of the suits. I wanted Dr. Vivian to have one and come with us—there is one other, you know—but he declined. Then I offered it to Bennet; but he didn't seem to jump at it. So we packed it away on board the ship."
"Marlinespikes an' camomile tea!" exclaimed Sam. "Why, Mr. Wilfrid, sir, the silly coon's afraid on it! When I tried to persuade 'im to try it on he cut up so rough, he up with his hands an'——"
"And you'll up with your legs and have us all out in a moment, Sam, if you don't keep still!" Harry put in angrily, grabbing at the sailor's legs to keep them down; for honest Sam, in his excitement, had all but turned the car over. "That's about the twentieth time to-day you've played that trick!"
"Herrings an' Epsom salts, but ye're right! That wor a near shave that time, Master Harry! I ain't zackly got me sea-legs—I means me air-legs—yet, ye see, Mr. Wilfrid."
"There, there, that'll do, Sam," Harry interrupted hastily. "We must get on after our ship, or we may lose her altogether. What about your vessel, Wilfrid—the one we took you from?"
"Oh! she has some messages to take to those left in charge at Raneema. She'll continue on her course. I shall come back with you—if you will have me."
"There is our ship," Myrola now put in, pointing to a speck in the distance which he eyed doubtfully. "I know the lake well, and I begin to fear she is going out of her course."
"If that's the case we had better try and catch her up and ask the skipper if he's certain as to his position," Wilfrid responded. "Though I suppose it does not greatly matter——"
"It matters a lot—in fact it may be a question of life or death," Myrola answered in tones full of anxiety. "Can you see the land in the distance yonder? There is said to be a terrible whirlpool there, into which vessels get drawn which drift out of their course. Alas! the ship is in danger indeed if she is being sucked into the whirlpool's deadly current! It lies off a shore greatly feared by the mariners of this lake, for it is named Morlenda!"
"And what may that mean?" Wilfrid asked.
"In your language," returned Myrola gravely, "I should express it as 'the shore of dread and desolation.'"
Little more was said after that. All the passengers in the curious conveyance grew anxious as to the safety of their friends on board the ship, and watched her progress as they gradually overhauled her and drew closer. By the time they overtook her the land ahead of her could be clearly seen, and her dangerous position was then only too manifest.
Right ahead of her rose a great ridge of rocks, thirty or forty feet above the surface of the water, and forming a semicircle, the ends of which reached far out into the lake on either side. In the middle of this was a passage, perhaps a hundred feet in width, through which raced and foamed a swift stream, and it was in the current leading to this stream that the little vessel was being drawn on, slowly, but irresistibly.
On each side of the opening rose a great column of rock, of most curious form. These two pinnacles were called—Myrola said—the "Serpent's Jaws," and it could not be said that the name was altogether a misnomer, so strangely did they resemble the open jaws of a colossal snake. On the other side of the passage, it was further explained, lay the great whirlpool, and beyond that again the terrible rock-bound coast—"the land of dread and desolation."
A land—so Myrola said he had been told—of serpents and strange reptiles, and still stranger people, living among the creatures without being devoured by them.
"Cannot we go farther, and see for ourselves what lies on the other side of yonder rocks?" Wilfrid asked.
"A good idea!" Harry returned. "We will put this story of the whirlpool to the test."
Accordingly, they sailed on past their vessel, disregarding for the time being the frantic signals which those on board made as they saw the four pass over their heads, and thought they were being deserted. In a few minutes they were over the "Serpent's Jaws," and could look beyond; and then they saw a terrible, awe-inspiring scene.
There was the whirlpool, sure enough, and a tremendous, awful affair it looked. Evidently, the waters of the lake here rushed down into some great cavity, probably the beginning of an underground river; and the great whirlpool, half a mile in diameter, was caused by the eddying stream which raced through the comparatively narrow passage overshooting itself, as it were, and then sweeping round and round in ever narrowing circles ere it made the final plunge.
As the aerial voyagers gazed down upon the whirling waters, with their wondrous change from a boiling, foaming, tumbling river, in the passage between the "Serpent's Jaws," to the dark, deadly smoothness of the whirlpool, where the water looked almost like a mass of highly-polished black-green marble, they could not help shuddering. In a little while the vessel would be within that fearful vortex, whirling round and round with ever increasing speed till it dived down the black hole in the centre!
They, themselves, up above, were safe enough from the danger; but what could they do to save those still on board from it?
"We must save them somehow—we must!" Wilfrid said, divining the unspoken thoughts of his companions. "Could we land them one or two at a time, do you think, on yonder shore beyond the whirlpool? And yet, what a desolate, forbidding-looking place to land them on!"
"It can't be helped. There is no alternative, and it will take us all our time to do even that much. So the sooner we set about it the better," Harry replied, moodily. He felt vexed with the sailors who had carelessly led them into this predicament.
It required some courage to leave their position of safety to go down on to the deck of that struggling craft and try to carry the people on her—six, all told, besides themselves, it seemed—across that great circle of dark, whirling water to the shore beyond. And then, again, could they rely upon the eagles remaining obedient while they were being made to do all this going to and fro?
However, it had to be attempted, and the sooner it was begun the sooner it would be finished. So, without further ado, the plucky chums set about the task.
First they continued on their way across the whirlpool, the smooth, gleaming sides of which exercised a terrible fascination, over them as they passed above, until they reached the shore. There they made a safe descent, and landed the first two—Myrola and Sam, for so—much against the protests of them both—it had been decided.
And here a most strange and unexpected thing occurred. One of the first objects that attracted Wilfrid's notice, as he stepped out, leaving Sam and the others to hold down their car for a few moments, was an egg-shaped boulder or stone, about a foot or so in length, which lay on the ground. He kicked it with his foot, and immediately it bounded away like a football. He stood and stared at it in amazement.
"Harry—Harry!" he cried, "can we have happened here upon the country we have been seeking all this time? See here—here is another 'black nugget'!"
It was so, beyond doubt. There, lying on the shore, knocking about, so to speak, like a mere pebble, or some other of the thousand and one "common objects of the shore," was another lump of that wonderful crude ore which had led to their long and adventurous journey to this place!
But there was no time to think or look about further then, and so, putting the discovery, for the moment, as far as possible out of their thoughts, Wilfrid and Harry started back to essay the difficult task of boarding the doomed vessel and bringing away from her the people on board.
The first two they intended should be the doctor and Bennet, leaving the sailors to the last; for Harry felt sore against them for the recklessness which had led to this disaster. It would be nothing less, for though they might all possibly save their lives, yet there were many things on board which they could not hope to carry with them, and which they could ill afford to lose.
But when, after great trouble and difficulty, they managed to get on board, they found matters even worse than they had expected; for the sailors were in such a state of panic that they had turned mutinous, and had endeavoured to seize the doctor and Bennet and make them prisoners. Their fear was that, if they allowed these two to be taken off first, they themselves might be left to their fate.
Trouble arose with the eagles, too, and the second journey had to be made with a pair of the tamest birds only, the others having become unmanageable. Some wild eagles from the mountains beyond had come upon the scene, and were hovering about overhead, making occasional swoops and uttering screams of defiance, and Myrola found great difficulty in keeping his own birds from taking up the challenge.
However, they made the first trips safely, and at last, just as the vessel was nearing the entrance to the channel, there were left on board only Wilfrid and one of the sailors, who were watching anxiously for Harry's reappearance for the last trip.
There was not much wind, and under normal conditions this journey would not have presented any greater difficulties than the others; but Wilfrid foresaw that, once the vessel reached the broken water of the channel, matters would become very different.
Harry knew this, too, and was doing his best to set out upon his final trip, but could not get his two eagles to start. The wild ones overhead had increased in numbers, and came swooping nearer and nearer, whereupon the tame ones which were loose rose to meet them, though they came back at Myrola's call. Just, however, as a start had been made, and Harry with his chosen pair had risen a few feet off the ground, a number of the wild birds came circling round, so near that the others refused any longer to be held back.
Then ensued a battle-royal, in which tame birds and wild were mixed up in inextricable confusion, with Harry in his car in almost the centre of the fight. Suddenly the car was overturned, and Harry, who was engaged at the moment in warding off two wild eagles which seemed to have singled him out for attack, fell to the ground.
He was not hurt, for his "magic jacket" once more saved him from what would otherwise have been a nasty fall; but when he rose to his feet and looked about for his car he found it was already nearly out of sight. The battling crowd had soared up almost to the mountain-tops, the empty car in the midst of them.
Upon the further side of the "Serpent's Jaws" Wilfrid waited for his chum's return, and waited in vain. He could not see what was passing beyond the rocky barrier which interposed, so knew nothing of what had happened.
And now the vessel drifted faster and faster. The sails were no longer of any use, and she became unmanageable. Then she was drawn into the rushing stream, which bore her swiftly into the channel.
Here, between walls of rock on either side, she was tossed and buffeted, turned this way and twisted that, and still Wilfrid and the poor, frightened wretch beside him looked landward, and wondered why Harry had not come back.
Never, perhaps, has a young fellow's sense of right and wrong been put to a more terrible test; for Wilfrid, had he been alone, could have saved himself easily. He had but to divest himself of his lead-soled boots, and he would have risen at once into the air, and the wind would have drifted him to the shore, where, by means of the "touchstones," he could have descended again to earth.
But his "magic jacket" had not sufficient ascending power to enable him to carry his companion. He tried it, but in vain. He took off all his armour, and divested himself of everything of weight he had about him; but it was of no avail. His "magic jacket" would not lift the man as well as himself. And meantime the poor frightened wretch was clinging, trembling, to his knees, beseeching him with prayers and tears not to forsake him. How could Wilfrid find it in his heart to do so? And yet to stay meant to be whirled with him into that terrible vortex. Ah, here they were in sight of it!
The vessel had passed through the channel somehow without being capsized, and had emerged upon the other side, and a few moments later was seized in the circular current of the whirlpool. She was urged at racing speed round its outer edge, and soon approached the shore, and passed it at a distance of a few hundred yards only.
Wilfrid saw his friends upon the beach. They were for the most part staring, horror-struck; but Harry was gesticulating violently, evidently trying to convey some message or advice which Wilfrid failed to comprehend. It all passed before his eyes like a panorama, and then the scene faded from view, and he saw only the broken water around, then the channel through which they had come. Presently, again, the figures on the shore came into view, but this time they were farther away.
To the sound of the tumbling, roaring waters there had now succeeded a strange hush. The vessel went upon her circular journey silently, and with scarcely any apparent motion. The water immediately around them was smooth and unruffled. It was like dark-coloured glass, but it was whirling round at a terrific rate.
In the centre could now be seen the vortex—a black, shining funnel, from the depths of which came a muffled roar. And as Wilfrid gazed he grew dizzy, his head swam, and a moment later he dropped unconscious upon the deck.
WHEN Wilfrid roused up from the feeling of dizziness which had overcome him, he found his sailor companion bending over him in evident and genuine distress. He had thrown off the thrall of the terror which had at first possessed him, and now appeared resigned to his fate. And he was brave and unselfish enough at this trying time to wish that Wilfrid should not sacrifice himself uselessly.
"Save yourself, my lord!" he now entreated. "Save yourself! I was a coward to wish to keep you here with me! What good can it do? It is plain that I must die. Well, one can but die once, and now that I have looked into the 'Serpent's Throat' I have looked death in the face, and I fear it no more. Why, then, should the young lord stay to share the fate of a humble sailor like myself?"
"What do you mean by the 'Serpent's Throat?'" Wilfrid asked, wonderingly.
"'Tis so they call the great hole in the middle of the whirlpool, which at last swallows everything that is sucked in through the 'Serpent's Jaws,'" the man replied. "'Tis a fearful thing to look at, that 'throat!' It makes those who gaze into it sick and weak and giddy. So my grandfather used to tell me. He said he had known a man who had looked into it and escaped—I know not how—and he went mad afterwards from thinking about it. So it is best to keep your eyes turned away from it, my lord."
"Ah! Perhaps there is something in that, my friend," Wilfrid returned. "I perceive it has a strange effect upon one—in our country we should call it hypnotism. The best way, as yon say, is not to look at the centre. Let us both keep our eyes turned away, and consider if, in the few minutes that are yet left to us, we cannot find a way of escape, as that other fellow did. What is your name, friend?"
"Well, friend Akalda, have you any idea where the stream that runs down what you call the 'Serpent's Throat' eventually goes to?"
"Look!" said the sailor, disregarding the question. "Your friends on shore are making signs to you. I fancy they wish to make you understand something that they think may help us."
At once Wilfrid threw off the strange lethargy that had seemed to lay hold of him, and sprang to his feet. Looking towards the shore, he found they were not much farther away than when he had last seen it, so very gradual was the narrowing of the fatal circle round which they were being carried.
Harry was standing between Sam and Bennet, and was pointing first to one and then to the other, evidently trying to convey some message by dumb show. Then, with one hand, he took a portion of Sam's dress off, and affected to put it on Bennet, pointing vigorously with the other hand at the vessel all the time; and, just as the pantomime had proceeded thus far, the whole scene seemed to fade away as the craft was whirled once more from the shore.
While travelling round, Wilfrid cudgelled his brains to think out the meaning of Harry's pantomime, but failed to find any solution of the puzzle, and could only wait impatiently until they should travel back to the point where he would be able to take up the story again, so to speak.
Meantime, he acted upon the sailor's advice, and kept his gaze resolutely away from that great shining funnel in the centre, which, however, had for him a strange and dread fascination; so much so that it was at times as much as ever he could do to avoid looking at it.
In due time he came in view of Harry again, and now he perceived that he was pointing to the coat of mail which Sam was wearing under his outer dress. This was one of those taken from the captured "men-birds," and was, in effect, a "magic jacket," with ascending power similar to that which Wilfrid was wearing.
Then Wilfrid suddenly understood. He remembered how Harry had told him that he had offered a similar garment to Bennet, and that the bluff old hunter had declined it. Where, then, was it now? Why, probably on board the vessel!
Thus Wilfrid now quickly reasoned the matter, and he lost no time in acting upon the idea. A few hurried questions put to the sailor quickly gave him the necessary information as to the most likely quarter in which to search for it, and a few moments later the two had dived into one of the craft's little cabins, and were feverishly hunting high and low for the garment.
Some time elapsed before they reappeared on deck. During the interval the doomed vessel made several revolutions, watched in terrible suspense by the anxious group on shore, who were eating their hearts out in their distress at their own powerlessness.
"And all just because the wind is in the wrong quarter!" Harry cried bitterly. "To think that, with our power to rise in the air and come down again at will, we are standing here absolutely helpless, while our friends perish before our eyes! We cannot even bridge the few hundred yards which separate us from them."
"Nor can they throw themselves overboard, and trust to swimming," said the doctor, with a sigh.
"They could float so lightly and easily, and the water is so smooth! And yet they would only be drawn in, just the same, to the all-devouring vortex!"
And now the circles grew smaller and smaller, and the doomed vessel took less and less time to race round. Would the two searchers find what they sought in time?
It seemed doubtful, and the suspense became almost intolerable to the unhappy watchers on the shore, nearly frantic now at their own helplessness.
The circles became smaller still, and now all hope seemed to be gone, when a cry went up from the watchful Harry.
"See! see!" he cried. "There they are! But she is going! She leans over! Oh, she will go under! She's leaning over more! What are they doing? Have they—oh, have they found it? Ah, see, doctor! Look, Sam! See! They are rising clear of her!"
And so it was. Just as their craft had neared the vortex, the parcel, tied up with weights to keep it down, had been found. It took many precious seconds to fix it on the sailor, and when they had settled their preparations, and had crawled cautiously back to the deck, the vessel was already careening over. In that position Wilfrid, who had to lead and instruct his companion, and take care never to leave go of him for a moment, found himself hampered by the cordage and flapping sails—for the latter had not been properly furled. But at the very last moment, as it seemed, he saw an opportunity and gave the word to let go, and they both rose slowly in the air, and hung poised over the terrible vortex.
Wilfrid looked down like one under a spell. He could not resist the horrible fascination of the scene. He declared afterwards that he believed if he had been free to do so, he should have been compelled to throw himself into it!
But his companion roused him,
"Look away! look away!" he cried. "It is death or madness to gaze down there! See! your friends are making signs!"
And Wilfrid, like one in a dream, looked towards the shore, and the sight of Harry and the others gesticulating excitedly, almost madly, recalled him to himself.
The last thing he remembered was the awful downward plunge of their vessel into that black gulf, and the sound of the deep, booming roar which ascended from its horrible depths.
Then it had passed, or rather, they had passed. Slowly the breeze floated them over the smooth, whirling waters, round which they had been careering so wildly, and drifted them towards the shore. A little later Wilfrid put into the hand of his companion—whom he had held tightly all the time—one of the stones taken from the Valley of Serpents, and directed him how to use it, when they both descended safely into the midst of their overjoyed friends.
There followed many mutual congratulations and much handshaking, amidst which the sailor, Akalda, was conspicuous in his demonstrations of gratitude towards Wilfrid; and in this he was backed up by his two compatriots who had been taken off first. They all three seemed full of admiration for the way in which Wilfrid had behaved, and vowed that he should have all their devotion in the future.
"Limpets an' whooping-cough!" cried Sam, in his honest enthusiasm. "It must 'a' bin worse for yer than the whirligig at a fair wi' a switchback at the end on it!"
"It was a terrible situation for you, my dear Wilfrid!" said the doctor, "and I cannot tell you how thankful I am to have you amongst us again, safe and sound, instead of being—ah, where our poor, brave little boat has gone!" And the worthy scientist could not repress a shudder.
"And, as for me, I thought I should have gone crazy as I saw you whirling round and round in that awful fashion!" Harry declared, almost with tears in his eyes.
Myrola and Bennet, too, had something to say, and it was some time ere the party became calm enough to speak of other matters. Then Wilfrid remembered his find.
"Why," said he, "we are forgetting that 'nugget,' the most important thing of all, because it seems to show that we are at last not only upon the right track, but that we must have happened upon the very country or island where more 'black nuggets' are to be found. Where is that joker we came across?"
He caught sight of it lying on the ground not far away, and went and picked it up. Then he brought it to show to his wondering friends.
"You have heard much of the 'black nugget,' which I took back to England with me, Harry, and which gave us our first 'magic jackets,' and wondered a good deal, no doubt, what it was like. Well, here is another! It is almost identical, save that it is smaller. See how light it is!" And he tossed it in the air. "One could use it for a football! Yet it looks like heavy, ponderous, metal ore!"
"Yes! It is certainly the same mineral," observed the doctor, after examining it through his pocket magnifying-glass. "It looks, indeed, as though we were getting near the end of our quest; for I suppose that where this was kicking about, so to speak, there must be more not far away. And that reminds me that we have not really thought much yet—so exciting have been the recent events—as to what sort of a country we have drifted into, or how we are going to get away from it again, or how live while here."
No, they certainly had not, any of them; and when, after being thus reminded by the doctor, they came to look about them in sober earnest, their faces fell, an index to the depression which seized upon their spirits. For never had they beheld a more desolate, uninviting-looking scene. The "Valley of Spiders" had seemed a marvel of bleak desolation when they had been passing through it; but the country they were now in appeared to be even less prepossessin.
On all sides gloomy, sombre rocks towered up, shutting them completely in, save for two or three narrow openings. These, on inspection, appeared to lead into arid ravines and valleys, even more forbidding, if that were possible, than the strip of shore upon which they had landed.
No trees, no smiling stretches of grass greeted their eyes; no sound of tumbling torrents or murmuring streams fell upon their ears. Water there was among the big, ugly boulders—too much in places—but it dripped in slimy fashion down the face of the rocks, and lay about in dark, stagnant pools, which looked as though they might be the loathsome haunts of some unknown, uncanny kind of monstrous reptiles. This creepy sort of idea was encouraged, as it were, by the fact that in places were to be seen large masses or boulders of singular and eerie form, some shaped like great, crouching monsters lying about asleep or waiting their opportunity to spring upon the passing traveller. Of what lay beyond, nothing could be seen from where they were save the misty peaks of what looked like a single high mountain.
"Well," exclaimed the doctor, at the end of a brief inspection, "I must say I have never, in all my travels, gazed upon such an inhospitable-looking country!"
"It is Morlenda," said Myrola, "the land of dread and desolation—sometimes also called the Land of Serpents. 'You enter by the Serpent's Jaws, and if you escape the Serpent's Throat you shall still be prey for serpent's fangs.' Thus runs a legend, or saying, which refers to this dreaded land!"
"BUT what's become of your car, made from the magic carpet we captured—and the eagles, too?" Wilfrid presently asked.
Harry shook his head, and went on to tell his chum the history of the loss of the car.
"And we've seen nothing since of either car or eagles," Harry concluded, ruefully. "Whether, in the end, the eagles carried off the car, or the car the eagles, we do not know; whether the wild eagles killed our tame birds, or they have simply gone home."
"It is a pity," Wilfrid observed, "for I was hoping they might help us to eventually get away from this place. It is very satisfactory, of course, to think that we have at last discovered the land where the 'black nuggets' come from; but at present it doesn't look as though it will be of much use to us. We don't seem likely to be able to get away to carry any nuggets with us, and it seems highly probable we shall starve if we remain. There is certainly nothing whatever to eat here."
"Not a bush with a berry on it," Harry put in.
"Not a bird to be seen—not even those wild eagles, now—nor a footprint of an animal we might hunt," said Bennet.
"Mussels an' measles!" cried Sam. "And there bean't no fish to be hooked, neither. Nobody can go a-fishin' in yon devil's cauldron!"
"And worst of all, we've jolly little ammunition," Wilfrid finished. "And that may prove to be a serious matter indeed, in a country like this, especially if we meet with hostile inhabitants."
These respective observations summed up the situation. As to the last item—ammunition—they had been obliged, of course, to leave most of it on board their unfortunate vessel. Harry, in his trips, with great forethought, had taken with him as much as he dared venture to put on the car, but it did not amount to a great deal. For the rest, they were all, except the sailors, dressed in armour; they had swords, cutlasses, daggers, shields, four "magic jackets," four repeating rifles, and four revolvers, with very little to put in them. That was a rough inventory of their outfit.
Night was now closing in, and it was clear they must make up their minds to go supperless to rest.
"I wish I'd known this at dinner-time," remarked Sam, as he lay down on the sand beside Bennet; "I'd ha' laid in a heavier stock at our dinner to-day."
And with a sigh at the recollection of the opportunities he had then thrown away, he turned over and forgot his hunger in sleep.
Wilfrid, worn out with the day's adventures, at first slept very soundly; but some time towards the middle of the night he awoke suddenly with a sense of some overmastering horror upon him. There was a dim moonlight, and, gazing upwards, he saw above him a large shadow outlined against the lighter sky beyond. At the same time he was drowsily conscious of two unusual sensations; the first was a soft, dreamy, delicious fanning, which brought with it a delightful sense of repose; the second was something quite the opposite, for it was a most fetid, vile, disgusting odour. He quietly put out his hand and felt for his sword, and as he did so the shadow above him made a swoop and attacked him. And then he understood—it was a gigantic bat; and a moment later another swooped down upon him, and springing to his feet he found himself engaged in a fierce combat with the two. The pair were so large, and assailed him with such savage determination, that it is likely he would have fared badly, if the noise of the fight and the creatures' shrill screams had not awakened others of the party, and brought them to his assistance.
Sam was the first to get on his feet and join in the fray.
"Why—salt junk an' ippecake-you-are-na!" he spluttered. "What on airth, Mr. Wilfrid—Oh, ho! I sees!" And, catching up his cutlass, he commenced to slash away, accompanying each stroke with some remark intended, no doubt, to be equally cutting.
"Get out—take that, ye venomous brutes! Why—mermaids an' oysters!—how the varmints do stink! Take that! ye evil-smelling catawampus—and that!" Then there was a pause for breath, after which he gave a tremendous hack, and shouted through his nose—which he was fain to hold with one hand.
At this point Bennet took a hand in the rumpus, and whether it was that he was more used to deal with such creatures, or that they were already beaten, it is certain that they at once gave up the fight, and with a last scream of spite and rage they flew away.
"When ye fight varmints like them," the hunter growled to Sam, "ye wants more elbow-grease an' less jaw."
"Now, may I never weigh a hanchor agen—" commenced Sam, bristling with indignation, when a cry from Wilfrid stopped him.
He had thrown himself beside Harry, who alone of all there had lain still, and showed no sign of being aroused by the tumult.
"Doctor—Doctor!" Wilfred cried; "see—he is bleeding!"
The doctor had already hastened to his side on hearing his first cry, and now knelt down and looked at the youth who still, strangely enough, slept on placidly.
"See, doctor! See the blood running from his neck. Why! That monster, which I saw rise from over him, had actually been sucking his blood!"
And so it proved; but fortunately the creature had been disturbed in time, Harry was awakened, and a draught from the doctors flask revived him. He sat up, and beyond a passing weakness, was none the worse for the experience.
"But," said the doctor, with a grave shake of the head, "I dare not think what the consequence would have been had the brute remained undisturbed. It's well you woke when you did, Wilfrid, or you both might have fallen victims."
"We ought've had fires," Bennet said.
"We were all too tired out to trouble about it, I guess," answered Wilfrid. "However, I've had quite enough sleep for to-night. I couldn't sleep again if you offered me a mountain of radium! Let's look around a bit. I've noticed some strange flashes of light, and thought I heard some curious sounds up yonder valley. Who'll come and explore a bit? Do you think you can walk a little way, Harry?"
"I'm equal to that much," was the answer, "and I was about to make the same proposal. I want to find out what causes the peculiar glow that I fancy I can see beyond those high, dark rocks,"
"Let me come too, my dear Harry," Myrola here put in. "I feel some curiosity that way on account of the tales the sailors tell of this strange country. They say they believe there must be a great fire-mountain inland, for from a distance at night, when passing, they have seen lurid lights shooting up into the air, filling the whole sky with a bright glow.
"There are other tales, too," he presently went on, after a pause, during which they had drawn near to the entrance to the largest of the valleys leading from the shore. "I hesitate to recall them, they are so wild, so grotesque, some of them. For instance, they call this country, as I have already said, the land of serpents. But more, they believe that it is inhabited by a fierce race, who have lived so long among the reptiles that the two races have intermingled, and the people are themselves half serpents, or half lizards!"
"I wonder they don't say some are half bats," Harry returned, with a smile. "Still, I always like to listen to these wild legends and superstitions, especially as the doctor has an idea that you nearly always find some vestige of a scientific foundation for them, if you only know where to look for it."
In the result, the whole party started off up the valley Wilfrid had indicated, and as they slowly made their way they had many strange experiences. Curious weird lights flitted about like will-o'-the-wisps, appearing and disappearing in most fantastic fashion; at one moment seeming to surround them, then vanishing instantly.
And all the while, there was a glow in the sky ahead of them, such as might arise from a volcano in a state of activity. At times there were flashes or streamers of coloured fire.
"This is better than yonder gloomy shore, haunted by vampire bats and goodness knows what besides," Harry exclaimed. "We seem to have before us a land of everlasting light—it may even be, as Wilfred said just now, a mountain of radium—who can tell?"
"I'd rayther, just now, we was in a land o' everlastin' beefsteaks!" muttered Sam in a "stage aside" to Bennet. "We can't live on rainbows!"
But as they advanced, they met with many enormous serpents, and some of their party were attacked by one, and the creature was only driven off with difficulty. A little later another of the travellers was assailed by an immense beast, which they took, at first, to be an alligator; but which the doctor declared to be a gigantic land lizard. This enemy also was driven off only with considerable trouble. Indeed, the weary wanderers had to keep a sharp outlook, for prowling monsters seemed to lurk on all sides.
By this time, however, it was getting light. The dawn had spread over the eastern sky, and in a few minutes more it became broad daylight all at once, as is usual in those latitudes. The mysterious lights had paled, and finally disappeared, "though," as the doctor remarked, "they are there just the same; we must not forget that."
They had now reached the head of the valley. From it a narrow defile led them into another one, much smaller. It was nearly circular in shape, and round it a rocky wall ran some twenty feet in height, and almost as perpendicular and regular as though it had been built or carved out by human hands. In the centre of this valley stood a sort of island, or platform of rock, also roughly circular, and perhaps a hundred feet in diameter; and upon this was something which at once attracted the attention of the scientist, and excited his curiosity.
"Why, it is a kind of 'Druid Circle'!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "We must have a look at this. Such a thing in this part of the world is most interesting!"
All that was to be seen consisted of a number of large masses of stone, arranged in a circle, some of those standing on end bearing immense boulders placed crosswise on their upper ends.
To Wilfrid and the others they seemed a mere jumble of rocks, and nothing more; but the doctor climbed eagerly up on to the platform or "island," and the rest of the party obediently followed.
The worthy scientist was delighted with what he there saw, and commenced a sort of lecture, almost as though he fancied himself lecturing at the Royal Institution.
"You see here, my friends—" he began, when he suddenly stopped, and gazed about him in surprise.
A shower of arrows had hurtled through the air, and fallen around them. Some struck against the armour of those who wore any, and glanced off or fell to the ground with a clatter; others rattled on the hard rock or against the big stones; but a cry from one of the sailors told that one at least had hit its mark and inflicted a wound.
"Down—down, all of you! Get behind the big stones!" cried Wilfrid. And he himself laid violent hands upon the lecturer and forced him to take shelter beside himself and behind a large boulder which was just high enough to screen them. "Jupiter! I wonder what this means? Are these Feroutah's people again?"
Standing on a loose stone which lay handy, he peered cautiously over the boulder behind which he had taken refuge, and continued to gaze and to utter exclamations of astonishment, in utter disregard of the fact that the appearance of his head above the stone had been the signal for a fresh volley of arrows.
They were surrounded; he saw that at a glance. Their new enemies were numerous, and they occupied an advantageous position, since they were grouped about upon and beyond the ledge or terrace of rock which encircled the valley. But, apart from that, Wilfrid stared in amazement at their grotesque appearance. They wore a sort of close-fitting armour which seemed to be made from the skins of great lizards and serpents, for the scales, of various colours, were plainly visible. But, most extraordinary of all, their heads resembled those of the same creatures. Masks, no doubt they were, but manufactured in some way from the actual thing, and it would be difficult to describe the horrible, repulsive effect they produced.
Then the rain of arrows ceased, whereupon Wilfrid's companions raised their heads and began to level their firearms. But Wilfrid, reminding them how little ammunition they had, bade them reserve their fire awhile until it should be more urgently required.
This order was obeyed, and they all stood watching the proceedings of their adversaries, which certainly were curious enough to excite interest.
Upon a sort of platform high above the rest, there now appeared an old man, with white, flowing hair and beard, in a white dress covered with serpent-like devices traced in scarlet. About him were other old men similarly garbed, evidently his attendants.
He held in his hand three curious-looking arrows, very long and shining, and these he handed, one after the other, very deliberately, to an archer with a hideous lizard head standing near, and the archer fired them at the travellers. He did not, however, aim at them, but shot the arrows into the air in such a manner that they turned and fell vertically upon the hard rock beside them. From each, as it fell and struck the ground, there was heard a slight explosion, and it began to send forth a thin, rose-coloured vapour.
Bennet ran forward to pick one up and throw it away, but ere he could touch it he reeled and sank helplessly to the ground.
The vapour spread, and each in turn, as he came under its malign influence, sank down unconscious. With loud yells and screams of triumph, their grotesquely-garbed enemies then left their coigns of vantage and crowded down to capture the helpless party. One by one they were bound and carried off; and when, some two hours later, they returned to consciousness, they found themselves in a gloomy stone dungeon, lighted only by dim gleams which struggled down through a grated window placed high above their heads. They were no longer bound; but, as they quickly discovered, they had been searched, and almost everything they valued had been taken from them, including, besides their arms, even their "magic jackets." Only their suits of armour had been left them.
There, for two days, they were left practically to themselves, their gaolers merely bringing them food, and refusing to answer any questions. On the third day, to their surprise, some of their gaolers entered and led Wilfrid away by himself.
He was conducted through various passages and corridors until he was finally ushered into the presence of one of the priests he had seen amongst the crowd of enemies by whom they had been attacked and captured. This priest, whose name he presently learned was Samanda, put many searching questions to the prisoner, particularly as to his possession of Feroutah's dagger, which his captors had discovered upon him when he had been searched.
But Wilfrid presently found that his questioner's interest in this and other matters he at first spoke of was comparatively slight. The real object of his examination related to a small gold disc or plaque with strange figures engraved upon it, which Wilfrid wore round his neck fixed upon a fine, gold chain of curious workmanship.
"In searching you, our people discovered this chain and disc," said Samanda, "and I wish to know how you came by it."
But Wilfrid could not afford much information upon this point. He could only state that he had worn it all his life.
"As a child," he said, "I was nursed and brought up, at first, by some Indians; and they hung that round my neck and advised me to wear it always and never part with it. I have observed that injunction—but beyond that I know nothing."
"And who were those Indians?" Samanda next enquired.
"An Indian chief named Inanda—who is now in the city of Raneema," Wilfrid replied, "and Carminta, who was my nurse. If you desire to know more, doubtless Inanda can tell you what you wish to find out."
In the result he was taken back to the dungeon, greatly mystified by all this cross-examination, but without any explanation of its object.
ERE Wilfrid had had time to relate fully to his friends what had occurred at his interview with Samanda, their guards again entered and commenced to rope them together in a string. Then they were led away—this time, as it presently appeared, to be brought before the chief priest and ruler of the confraternity amongst whom they had fallen, one known as Melienus.
Arrived before him, their bonds were loosed, and they were placed in a row, guarded by men with drawn swords.
Wilfrid recognized in Melienus the one who had given the archer the mysterious arrows which had instantaneously taken away the senses of himself and his companions. He was seated under a canopy, upon a sort of throne, with a number of attendant priests ranged on one side of him, while here and there were grouped his guards in their hideous dresses. On the other side, upon another throne, also under a canopy, sat Feroutah, who had discarded his feather costume, and now appeared in the rich dress in which he had been attired that night, when, for a brief while, he had been Wilfrid's captive in the ruined castle. Round about him were a large number of his attendants and followers clad in coats of mail or shining armour.
The thrones were placed upon an extensive flat terrace, which had for background, at a distance of a few hundred yards, a rocky precipice, which formed the buttress of one of the mountains upon that side. In the rear of the chiefs were massed numbers of the rank and file, in two companies, distinct from each other, Feroutah's followers being upon one side, while those of the priests, in their fantastic garb, were on the other, with an open space between them.
Turning his gaze in another direction, Wilfrid's attention was attracted by the sight of a new prisoner, standing erect but motionless before Melienus. So surprised was the young fellow that he could scarcely believe he saw aright; but at that moment the other turned his head slowly and deliberately and fixed upon the young fellow a glance so piercing, and yet so inscrutable, that Wilfrid started as his own met it.
The prisoner was Lyondrah!
"Look, Harry! Look Myrola!" Wilfrid exclaimed in low tones to the two friends beside him. "See, yonder is Lyondrah! How comes it that he is here, too, a prisoner like ourselves?"
Myrola was terribly cast down at this, and showed it in his looks as well as by his next speech.
"Alas! the fates are against us in every way. This fills up the cup of misfortune for my unhappy people as well as for myself. I have been congratulating myself that if I am to perish here, they would have a just and capable leader to carry on the fight; but now, that consolation has been snatched from me. No doubt he is here by reason of some brave and daring attempt he had made to come to our succour—an attempt which turned out as luckless as the rest of our efforts!"
This, as it happened, was the true explanation of the presence of Lyondrah there. Divining what had happened, he had landed on the coast with a party hastily organized, with the object of rescuing the captives. Instead they had been surprised by a company of the priests' followers; and, after a stiff fight, in which many had been slain, the remainder, including Lyondrah himself, had been captured.
"How strangely he seems to look at you, Wilfrid," Myrola continued. "He hardly seems to notice any of us! Evidently there is something he would like to say to you, if he could."
Further talk was interrupted by Feroutah, who now stood up and addressed Melienus, in tones which were a curious mixture of fierce arrogance and urgent appeal. His speech was to the effect that all the prisoners had been engaged in acts of war against him and his people as well as against the people of the island, and he demanded that they should be put to death then and there, either by being "cast into the pit," or in such other way as Melienus might decree.
Melienus looked for a space at the captives before replying. His hard, stern face, rugged and determined, gave no hope for mercy, and his eyes, wonderfully bright and vivid for so old a man, seemed to flash with cruel, revengeful fire.
He raised his hand, and dead silence fell upon all present.
"They deserve death," he said slowly. "Let them be cast——"
There came a sudden interruption. There were voices heard in altercation, and then the priest Samanda pushed his way through the crowd and stood before his chief.
"Melienus," said he, "without, are Zyrla and many others of the principal inhabitants of Mellopia. They crave speech with thee before thou doest aught against these strangers. They——"
"Now, by our gods," exclaimed Melienus, starting up, pale with anger, "what madness is this? Who is Zyrla that he should dare to come between us and our enemies? And thou—thou forgettest thyself in acting as the messenger of such people. I have heard strange things of thee, Samanda! Strange tales of thy doings have reached my ears, for which thou wilt thyself be called to account later on!"
"I am prepared to give thee an account of my doings at another time," returned Samanda. "At present I do but appeal to thee to hear what Zyrla has to say. Thou speakest of strange doings; there have been stranger things going on in Mellopia, of which as yet neither thou nor Feroutah there has any knowledge. Not only is Zyrla here, but with him such a following as to make it only a matter of prudence on thy part to grant them an audience, before driving them to extreme measures."
"Extreme measures!" cried Feroutah, in an outburst of rage. "What meanest thou? Why, this is treason—rebellion! These dogs shall be whipped for this! Dost hear, Melienus? Wilt thou listen to such talk? How long wilt thou allow their spokesman, the traitor Samanda, to flout us all thus?"
But even while he had been talking there had been heard the tramp of strange feet, and now from the further end of the terrace appeared the head of a column of armed men, marching with military precision up the open space which divided the two parties already there.
Wilfrid and his companions recognized amongst the foremost the patriarch Zyrla and his son Divonus. They were in the midst of a brilliant group of men, some in rich dresses, others in glittering armour, and some carrying banners, which they waved above their heads. At this sight Feroutah, almost gnashing his teeth with rage, shouted something to some of his followers which sounded like a call to arms, but Melienus raised his hand to impose silence, and declared that before any hostile step were taken on either side, he wished to hear Zyrla, to know what it was all abou.
"Since thou hast thrust thyself and this crowd upon us," he said with dignity, "let us hear what thou hast to say, I warn thee it will go hard with thee and thy foolish dupes if thou failest to justify such outrageous conduct."
"It will be better, Melienus," responded the patriarch, no less haughtily, "to speak to us without threats. When thou talkest of punishment, know that thou wouldst have to punish our whole nation, for we are all agreed."
"Agreed upon what?"
"Agreed that we will no longer bear the tyranny of Feroutah"—here Feroutah half drew his sword, and took a step towards the speaker—"or his nominee Crezonis. We——"
"But what have I to do with this?" Melienus interrupted, contemptuously. "Settle thy quarrels with Feroutah and Crezonis between yourselves. For what reason do you push yourselves in here? So far as I can understand matters, this seems to signify another revolution—another rebellion against Feroutah. It is not the first, nor the second, and on the former occasions he speedily crushed the attempts, and took his own means of vengeance upon those who——"
"He will not this time," Zyrla put in, with significant emphasis.
"That's as may be. But thou knowest I do not interfere in such matters. Therefore, again I ask, why come here in this menacing fashion, interrupting our proceedings?"
"We come," said Zyrla, slowly and deliberately, "to demand our king."
"To demand thy king! Who? Feroutah?"
"No; not the usurper—the regicide—but our lawful, rightful king—Sorenza!"
"Why, what folly is this?" exclaimed Melienus, staring first at Zyrla, and then at those with him. "Sorenza is—dead, I suppose. Nothing has been heard of him for many a long day. Certainly, I cannot tell thee where to find him, or suggest where to seek him."
"He stands yonder!" cried Zyrla, pointing to Lyondrah. And at the words loud cries arose from those accompanying the patriarch.
"Sorenza! Sorenza! Our lawful king!"
None there seemed to be more astonished at this declaration than Melienus himself, for he looked at Lyondrah, then at Zyrla, and then at others around him as though he thought they had all taken leave of their senses. But Feroutah seemed to understand. He gave a howl like a wild beast, and made a sudden rush upon Lyondrah, his drawn sword in his hand, and murder in his eye.
Now, Lyondrah at that moment had turned to look at Zyrla, and had his back to the cowardly assailant.
Wilfrid, however, was watching everything keenly. He saw Lyondrah's peril, and, with sudden daring, he snatched a sword from a guard standing beside him, and, ere the man had recovered from his surprise, had rushed forward, and was in time to knock aside Feroutah's sword as he was in the very act of lunging at Lyondrah's back.
Lyondrah turned and thanked Wilfrid with a look; then, quickly comprehending the position, he closed with his enemy and seized his right wrist before he could draw back his hand for another thrust. The struggle was but a short one. A moment later, Lyondrah had raised the body of his brutal foe above his head and cast him from him. He fell heavily to the ground, but recovered himself, and seemed to be meditating a second attack, when, at a sign from Melienus, some of his people interposed between the two.
"I will have none of this sort of thing here," Melienus cried imperiously. "Not even from thee, Feroutah," he added, with a lowering brow. "Now, who is it declares yonder prisoner to be Sorenzo?" he next asked. "I want thy evidence, Zyrla—thy proofs."
"Proofs! Evidence!" retorted Zyrla, disdainfully. "Look at him. Thou knowest him well enough. If not, I do. I recognized him when first I saw him a short time ago. And ask thy friend Samanda. Tell me, dost thou not recognize him?" he asked, addressing Samanda.
"I do!" returned the priest in steady, determined tones. "I recognize yonder prisoner as Sorenza, whom we all once knew as the rightful heir to the throne of Mellopia." And then he astounded everybody present by pointing to Wilfrid, and adding: "And there stands his son, known to me years ago as young Prince Taloma!"
SAMANDA'S astounding statement was followed by a dead silence, in the midst of which there was heard a deep rumbling, like the growling of distant thunder, which was followed by a muffled explosion.
Then there arose a commotion, and many cries of fright and wonder; but Melienus took no notice of the sounds, and his example quickly restored quiet.
"These statements must be inquired into," he presently said, "but this is not the place to do so. Come ye, Zyrla, and thy chief friends, with me into our council chamber. Feroutah had better come, too, and bring all the prisoners."
He led the way to the high building in which Wilfrid so recently had had his private interview with Samanda. Following him, those who had been bidden trooped into a great hall, curiously sculptured with bas-reliefs of all kinds of serpents and other reptiles; and there Melienus took his seat upon a dais, with Feroutah beside him, and their principal officers grouped around them.
"Now, tell me," Melienus demanded of Lyondrah, when the necessary preliminaries had been arranged, "dost thou claim to be Sorenza, the son of Amondah, the great king who——"
"Who was foully murdered by Feroutah yonder, thou shouldst say," said Lyondrah, drawing himself up, and casting a withering glance at his scowling enemy. "I do claim to be he, though truly I knew it not till a little while since."
"What are we to understand by that?" Melienus inquired, coldly. "Explain."
Lyondrah passed his hand across his forehead.
"I scarcely know how to explain," he said, confusedly. "My memory was lost, and I had forgotten all that went before—before a certain time. Even now much of it is very confused."
"The fellow is an impostor, and is hatching up lies!" cried Feroutah. "Away with him and all his crew to the pit, Zyrla as well!"
"Silence!" thundered Melienus. "I will find out the truth for myself!"
"What he says is easily explained," Samanda put in very quietly. He fixed his eyes upon Melienus. "At the time of the murder of the great King Amondah, a certain person gave the son, Sorenza, a potion to drink which took away his memory of all that had ever happened to him in his life up to that moment. Then he was cast out into the world, to become an exile and a wanderer among strange peoples, having no idea who he was or whence he came.
"His infant son, I, at the command of a certain person, took from him—the child's mother being dead—and placed with an Indian woman named Carminta, in the camp of the Indian chief Inanda; and it has come about, after many years, that these two have drifted back here to their own country. In this I perceived the ruling of the gods, and I decided that I would not fight against it. Finding that Sorenza's memory was still a blank as to all the first part of his life, I gave to Zyrla the antidote to the poison which a certain person had administered. And that is how it happens that he is now beginning to remember the past, though his memory is not yet quite clear; but presently he will be able to recall everything."
"Thou—thou hast done this, Samanda?" exclaimed Melienus, regarding his colleague with a strange, fixed look.
"Ay, I," returned the other, boldly. "I am tired—sick of the present state of affairs. I will not continue to be Feroutah's tool, to aid him to harry and oppress the nations of the lake, and usurp the place of the son of Amondah, the great and wise king, I have talked with Sorenza, and he is willing to forgive those who have acted against him. If thou wilt leave this island, Melienus, he will reinstate the remnant of our nation which is left in our ancient country upon the other side of Raneema, from which we were formerly driven; and there, he declares, we shall dwell in peace and under his protection. So I cast in my lot with him, and I advise thee—all here—to do the same."
Melienus was silent, and seemed to be pondering. Zyrla and his friends crowded round Lyondrah and poured in their congratulations, but he scarcely seemed to notice them. He sought out Wilfrid, and, looking at him keenly, said:
"And you, what think you of all this?"
"It seems that I have found a father," returned Wilfrid, with emotion, "and it explains to me why I felt so drawn towards you when I first saw you. Do you remember this?"
And he took from his breast the gold disc which had caused Samanda to recognize who he was.
"I do, my son—I do! I, on my side, have felt strangely attracted to you, and again and again have I tried to discover what there was about your face that seemed familiar to me. It was your likeness to your mother, my boy—to my poor wife, who was killed by yonder murderer at the same time that he assassinated my father!"
And he nodded at Feroutah.
Melienus and Samanda stood apart, and conferred together; then others of their followers joined in, and during the hush that followed, while the several groups talked in low tones, there was heard again that ominous rumbling, which seemed, this time, to come from the ground beneath their feet.
Feroutah went up to Melienus and talked at first in subdued accents, though he was evidently with difficulty repressing his raging passions. His voice gradually rose, and so also did the tones of the two priests, until Feroutah, unable longer to control his fury, began to threaten.
Then Melienus turned upon him in a passion, which was all the more impressive in that he still spoke in cold, measured accents:
"Thou hast dared to threaten me! That is sufficient! Go from my presence! Let me see thy face no more, or I shall forget that we have ever been friends. In future I throw in my lot with King Sorenza, and thou hadst best look to thyself, for thou wilt have to count with me as well as with him!"
Feroutah seemed like one demented.
"So be it, fool!" he cried. "Henceforth I am thy sworn enemy, and I will conquer you and your tribe and hunt you off the face of the earth, as I have done and will yet do with all who dare to oppose me!"
He called to his officers to follow him, and they went out in a body.
Melienus turned to Lyondrah.
"I am the one," he declared, "who did administer to thee that poison which took away thy memory. I do now repent me of it. If thou wilt forgive, I will do my best to atone; and not I alone, but all my people." Lyondrah, for answer, extended his hand, and at once a great shont went up from all present:
"Long live Sorenza, our long-lost, lawful king! Long live Prince Taloma, his son!"
"You are included in this, my boy," said Lyondrah to Wilfrid, as the two clasped hands. "God be thanked for this meeting after many days!"
Harry, the doctor, Myrola—all three crowded round and offered their congratulations; and in the midst of it all there came again that strange rambling, but this time it was accompanied by the sound of loud, booming explosions, which startled the assembly into silence.
Then, from without, came the sound of shouts and cries, and some of Zyrla's party came rushing in with scared faces.
"Feroutah and his people are attacking us," they cried; "but worse than that is happening outside! The fire-mountain is shattered, and great rocks are falling upon all sides from the mountain-tops!"
"It is an eruption! This island is but an ancient volcano, and it has broken out again," said the doctor to Lyondrah and Melienus. "I am sure of it. I have been expecting something of the kind ever since I observed the electrical state of the atmosphere that first night we passed on this island, just after our escape from the whirlpool. I was at Martinique when Mont Pelee burst out, and the signs here have all been similar to what I observed there. My advice is, that you all leave the island as quickly as possible. We are doomed if we remain. I am told that there are ships lying off the coast. Let us hasten to them!" They hurried to the entrance, and found there a frightened crowd—the remainder of their own friends—standing about in trembling trepidation.
Feroutah's people had stampeded, and were making a rush to return to their own boats; so far as they were concerned, therefore, the road was clear.
"Let us hurry!" urged the worthy doctor. "I have witnessed one eruption; I do not wish to be caught in the midst of another!"
"I will guide you all by the nearest and best route," said Melienus. "If what you say be true then, indeed, we shall do well to go at once. Yet there are many of our belongings——"
"This is no time to stop to pack clothes!" returned Dr. Vivian, brusquely. "We shall be fortunate indeed if we escape with our bare lives!"
Upon that, Melineus waited no longer, but led the way; the rest following in panic-stricken haste. Every moment the eruption was increasing in force. Explosion followed explosion like the continued firing of heavy artillery. Great rocks were shot up into the air as though they had been marbles, falling back upon the mountain-sides, and tumbling down them in thundering avalanches. The sky began to darken, and from out of it commenced to fall the dreaded fiery ashes, which burnt up everything they fell upon. The air became laden with the smell of burning sulphur, and in the growing obscurity the narrow pathway was difficult to find.
Suddenly a loud cry came from those in front. The doctor looked up.
"We are too late!" someone cried.
Their road to the sea was blocked by a white-hot river of molten lava!
THE refugees gazed in blank dismay at the terrible, impassable barrier which cut them off from the shore where their vessels lay.
There, before them, was the horrible river of lava, white-hot, giving off clouds of steam and blinding, suffocating fumes, flowing slow, turgid, and silent, yet irresistible and unapproachable.
Every now and then, as it spread still farther abroad, and rolled into some stagnant pool, there were several small explosions, or shrill hissings, and white clouds flew up suddenly skywards. But most of these lesser sounds were drowned in the thunder of startling roars which boomed forth now and again from the burning mountain.
"Is there no other road—no way round?" was the question which quickly broke out on all sides. Each one seemed to be asking it of his neighbour; only to be met by the same despairing words, or a shake of the head, in return.
The two priests, Melienus and Samanda, looked at each other.
"The underground river!" they exclaimed together.
"What are you speaking of?" Lyondrah asked.
"There is an underground passage, or tunnel, not far from where we now are," Samanda explained, "through which runs a river which finds its way into the waters of the lake. In ordinary times one can walk beside it, but now I doubt whether it would be possible."
"We must try it; though, I fear,'tis but a forlorn hope," Melienus decided.
"Let our young friends take advantage of their 'magic jackets,' and pass over the fiery flood," suggested Lyondrah. "The wind is favourable just now, and we others will take our chance underground."
He spoke in ignorance of the fact that those who had lately been prisoners had been deprived of their "magic jackets" as well as their arms. When this was explained to him, he turned reproachfully on Melienus, who shook his head.
"I do repent me now of what was done," he confessed, "and still more that, in the haste of our sudden departure, all such matters were forgotten. Unfortunately, we cannot now remedy it. We shall be lucky if we escape with our lives. We have but one chance—the one Samanda has spoken of. Follow me!"
"It sounds a terribly slender chance," Harry said to Wilfrid, as they turned and began to retrace their steps. "Where shall we be if the lava flood should have found its way down some fissure or crevice into this underground stream?"
"Or should do so just when we are down there," he returned. "However, we must hope for the best."
As they hurried back over the road they had already traversed there were many signs of the changes which were taking place on all sides. The track was now blocked in places by great masses of stone which had newly rolled down from the heights above; in others by yawning pits, which belched forth sulphurous fumes, and sometimes flames and sparks. The heat was increasing, and was becoming almost intolerable, when they turned aside suddenly into a great cavern, in which the air was cool by comparison. From some secret hiding-place just within the cavern mouth the two priests brought out lanterns and torches, which were evidently kept there for use when required; and, these being lighted, the refugees plunged onwards into a broad tunnel.
The followers of Melienus still wore their strange attire, with its lizard-like scales, and their fantastic head-dresses, or masks, made from the heads of reptiles; and the flare from the flickering, swaying lights produced weird effects as it fell in some places upon these grotesque costumes, in others upon shining armour.
The sounds they had been listening to outside grew gradually more muffled as they proceeded. In place of them, every now and again, there were now heard deep, sullen rumblings, which seemed to come from the very depths of the earth; and soon to these was added a continuous roar, which was at first very low, but increased in volume with almost every step they took.
"It is an underground waterfall," Samanda told Wilfrid. "Now comes the critical part of our progress down here. If it is unduly swollen, or anything has happened to alter its usual course, our chances of finding our way through will be small indeed."
As they drew near to the subterranean fall the roar became deafening, so that further talk was impossible, and orders or instructions had to be conveyed by gestures and dumb show.
Wilfrid, Harry, and Myrola kept together just behind the leaders, and assisted one another upon the slippery rocks they had to climb down beside the fall. They found the path slimy and treacherous, and the whole air of the place was charged with spray, causing the lights to splutter, and threatening to put them out altogether. Cautiously they made their way now, proceeding with what, in the circumstances, seemed tantalizing slowness. Yet none durst hurry, for the least slip might have sent the stumbler over into the tumbling waters, and carried him down into the black depths below. When the bottom of the fall was reached the way became gradually less steep; and, after a while, the roar of the cataract grew less, and died away behind them.
They were now traversing a ledge which occupied one side of the tunnel, while beside it, in a rocky bed, rushed the swirling torrent, still tumbling and foaming, but growing quieter by degrees.
"We may get through yet," Samanda declared, as he pointed out a tiny speck of light in the distance. "Yonder is the outlet where the river runs into the open air. The stars be thanked, we have passed right under the molten river which barred our way!"
Scarcely had he spoken when there came from behind them a sudden sharp report, such as might be caused by a crack or rent in the face of the rock. It was followed by a loud hissing, which lasted for a minute or more.
"I don't like those symptoms," said Wilfrid. "It sounds as though the lava were beginning to trickle through. If so, then——Why, see, the water is rising!"
The ledge upon which they were walking was becoming flooded, the stream having risen above its level. At first the rise was but slight, and the travellers marched along in not more than an inch of water. But the depth gradually increased, until their progress became not only difficult but dangerous, the ledge being at last completely hidden from sight.
Wilfrid heard Sam exclaiming just behind him:
"Whelks an' smellin'-salts, this be like old times t' me. 'Minds me of mermaids an' oysters' If the water ain't a-gettin' hot!"
It certainly was, and it grew warmer as they continued to struggle through it. And now were heard further ominous reports behind them, followed by sounds like the escape of steam from some immense, overcharged boiler. Presently the steam began to overtake them, coming along in clouds, which soon obscured the view in front.
"We must swim!" cried Lyondrah. "We are nearing the outlet, but the steam will prevent our reaching it at the rate we are going. All here can swim, I imagine; if so, it will be safer to take to the water, for the current will carry us faster than we can get along in this fashion."
The wisdom of this suggestion was recognized. The only thing against it seemed to be that they would be compelled to abandon their armour and most of the arms they still carried amongst them. There was, however, no choice, and a minute or two later each one had discarded the heavier part of his attire, thrown away whatever he felt he could not carry while swimming, and plunged into the midst of the rushing torrent. Though warm, it turned out to be cooler than the steam above had become, and it was a welcome relief from the heated vapour.
And now, as they were borne along, they became aware of many gruesome creatures which were also trying to make their escape by the same means—great snakes, lizards, alligators, and giant terrapins; but, as in the case of a forest fire, they all seemed too panic-stricken to think of interfering with their human companions or with one another.
A few minutes more—though to most of those struggling in the eddying stream it seemed more like hours—brought them to the end of the tunnel, and Wilfrid looked round, as they emerged from the blinding steam, to see who was near him, and how the others had fared. He found himself close to his newly-found father, while Melienus and Myrola were almost beside them. Not far behind he could see another group, consisting of the doctor, Harry, Sam, Bennet, and some others; while behind these, again, he made out Zyrla, with his son Divonus, Samanda, and several of their followers. Thus reassured as to the safety of his friends, he glanced ahead, to see whither they were drifting.
Evidently the river here ran straight out into the lake. Ashes were still falling, obscuring the view, and there was over everything a brooding semi-darkness, lighted up at intervals by lurid flashes. Loud crashes, and booming, thunderous roars could be heard; and now and again a red-hot stone would fall with a hiss into the lake, sending up a column of curling steam above the splash of the water.
Then Melienus called out that a vessel was in sight, and that they were to make for her. And Wilfrid saw, with feelings of relief, a large galley with many rowers, flying the orange and black banners which he had seen upon Zyrla's ships. Towards this craft they therefore turned, but before they had gone far a sudden breeze sprang up, which brought with it a cloud of ashes, very small, but so thick as to shut out the view beyond a few yards. At the same time there followed a succession of rumblings and booming crashes, so loud as to drown the calls they sent back to those behind. Thus the foremost group became separated from all the rest, and pressed on towards the galley they had sighted, thinking that, once on board her, they could immediately put back to the assistance of their friends.
A little later, they were dose enough to clutch at the ropes which were thrown to them, and after some trouble the four were hauled on board. But as they went over the side they were seized, bound, and gagged, one by one, so suddenly and quietly that those who came after had no warning, no suspicion of what was going on. They were laid upon the deck, and then they saw, bending over them, with smiles of diabolical triumph, Feroutah and some of his myrmidons, dressed in the orange and black costumes of some of the followers Zyrla had brought to the island with him.
"This is indeed a fortunate meeting!" Feroutah hissed out, "Thy gods have not been gracious to thee, Melienus, for they have delivered thee and thy new friends into my hands! I will take care of them myself this time, and of thee, too! Thou shalt thyself learn how Feroutah treats those who defy him! Thou wilt repent, too late, that thou didst turn against him and throw in thy lot with his enemies!"
Then, to the people on board, he cried:
"Away to our home! Let us return as fast as sails and oars can take us! I am well content, for the present, with these four. To-morrow, at noon, you shall all behold a brave sight; you shall see them make their flight to the sun in the death-cages! Then, when that is done with, we will come back to hunt down and punish the rest of the rebels!"
"WHAT are those behind us shouting?" asked Harry, as he swam beside his companions. "I cannot make out what it is they are calling out."
"We are to keep to our left, Mr. Harry," Bennet answered. "They sighted some vessels belonging to their own people in that direction just before it came over so thick. It is as well, for I fear the doctor is getting tired out."
"Then we must help him!" exclaimed Harry, pausing to look round for his friend.
He had been a little in front, and now waited till the scientist came up. Then, seeing that both Sam and Bennet were rendering him assistance, he said:
"I can't quite make it out. You say, Bennet, that our friends behind called out to us to turn to the left, but I feel almost certain I saw Wilfrid and those with him go off to the right, towards a vessel which I caught sight of some little distance away. But I cannot now see either them or the vessel."
Just then Samanda came up, and, hearing the last words, asked:
"What was the vessel like—the one they were making for?"
"I could not see very well, except that she had orange-coloured flags at the masthead, and I caught sight of the same colour on her deck. She was a large craft with long sweeps or oars, as well as sails."
"Oh, that would be one of Zyrla's galleys, if you are sure as to the colours," was the reply. "Still, we saw others away to our left, evidently coming towards us, and they will do for us just as well. We could not all get into the one vessel."
So Harry and those with him turned to their left, and after swimming a short distance farther, they perceived two other vessels, also with oars and sails, bearing down on them. They proved to be filled with friends of Zyrla and Divonus, and, acting upon their leaders' instructions, they sought for the refugees and took them on board as they issued from the mouth of the tunnel. Other ships joined them one by one, and so room was found for the whole company.
When Harry clambered on board, one of the first to welcome him was Rulenta, who inquired anxiously concerning his young master, Prince Myrola.
Harry's reply appeared to be satisfactory, and Rulenta went on to tell what had happened to the party Zyrla had left in the vessels to wait his return.
They had been attacked, it seemed, treacherously and unexpectedly, by Feroutah's party, who had reached the shore before the lava stream had barred the direct road. There, taking advantage of the ignorance of those waiting for Zyrla, as to what had occurred, Feroutah had set upon them and captured three of their vessels, of which one had been sunk in the fight. The other two, with many prisoners, had been taken away with his own fleet, and, in the circumstances, Rulenta and his companions had not thought it prudent to pursue them.
"Our captain here, Teudah," Rulenta continued, "told us he knew of the tunnel through which a river runs, and when we saw the fiery river come down from the mountain and cut off your retreat, he guessed that you would all try the underground route. So he considered it would be more prudent to come here to see if we could meet you and take you on board, than to carry on the fight just now against Feroutah's party."
It was some time before all the swimmers were picked up, and some of the last were found to be in very bad case, for they were suffering from scalds and burns. Evidently the lava was flowing into the tunnel faster and faster, and indeed by this time steam was pouring out of the tunnel mouth in such vast clouds that the Mellopian captain deemed it wise to move his vessels farther out into the lake.
When Zyrla, Samanda, and the other leaders had seen all their followers accounted for, and had themselves recovered somewhat from the exertions and excitement of their perilous journey, they greatly wondered at the continued absence of Melienus and the three who had been with him. They began to make, therefore, inquiry for them amongst the rest of their vessels—of which quite a fleet had now gathered near.
In the meantime there had been a lull in the progress of the eruption, and the air upon the lake had cleared. It was getting late in the afternoon, and the sun appeared for a while above the distant horizon. Its red beams shone upon the heavy black clouds which hung about the newly-opened volcano, and the columns of steam and other vapours which were rising from all parts of the island. Fierce reports and sullen rumblings were still heard at intervals, but they had lessened in violence, and for the time it seemed as if the worst of the eruption had passed. A wind sprang up which carried off ashes and volcano dust, and enabled those on board the vessels to get a clear view of the lake.
"Why, there's another swimmer!" exclaimed Harry. "See where he has got to! He must have missed us when the air was so thick, and gone past! But now he has seen us, and is coming back, I suppose. He must be exhausted. Some one ought to—Ah!"
"Flounders an' linseed poultices!" cried Sam.
"He's pumped out, Mr. Harry! I'll hook him, an' you be ready wi' the landing-net."
And so saying, Sam sprang overboard to the assistance of the swimmer who, as Harry had feared, was getting exhausted. Harry, with two or three more, scrambled down into a small boat which was towing astern, and they put off to Sam's assistance. A little later, the worthy sailor had been brought back on board, and with him the one he had gone to rescue.
He turned out to be one of Zyrla's sailors who had been in the galley which Feroutah had captured and carried off. He had managed in the thick mist to slip overboard, and had swum back to try to meet with his own people. And now that he had reached them, he had a strange and startling tale to tell—one that thrilled Harry and his friends with horror, and roused the whole party to instant action. He related how that, while a prisoner, he had seen Feroutah and his people strip the other prisoners and dress themselves in their clothes; how they had then taken the vessel—still flying the Mellopian flags—to the mouth of the tunnel and hung about there, evidently expecting that some of those they wished to capture would issue from it; how the ruse had succeeded; how the first four who came out from the tunnel had swum innocently and unsuspiciously up to the vessel, and had been immediately seized, made prisoners, and carried off. And finally, he had told of the talk he had heard afterwards, of Feroutah's declared intention to send these four prisoners "up to the sun" in the terrible "death-cages" at noon the very next day.
"And the men-birds are coming to attack us," he added. "He's sending every one, and has even lent one of them his own feather dress. I heard him tell the fellow to take care of it, as he had brought every one with him, and hadn't even one left for himself when he got home."
"Feroutah will not be with them, you think, then?" Samanda asked.
The man shook his head.
"No," he replied; "I'm sure he won't. He's too much taken up with his plan of sending his four prisoners up when the sun shall be overhead to-morrow. I heard him say he hoped the men-birds would be back by then with a lot more prisoners."
"Oh, he said that, did he?" exclaimed the captain of the vessel. "Well, then, my friends, let us prepare to give them a warm reception."
"Yes; but we must hurry on in pursuit, without waiting for them to come to us!" Zyrla cried. "We must strain every nerve to catch them up and rescue our friends!"
The necessary signals were quickly given, and a few minutes later the whole of the little fleet set out upon the track of the captured vessels.
There was some wind, mostly in their favour, but changing about continually, so that they were compelled to have recourse to their long sweeps to assist their progress. As they drew away from the island the mountain seemed to break out afresh, and flames came from it which rose to a height of many thousands of feet. There were repeated explosions, at each of which they saw white-hot rocks shot out into the upper air amongst the smoke and showers of sparks. They had indeed a fine view of the eruption during the whole of the time they were making their way across the waters of the lake, which at one time would be violently agitated, as though by sudden whirlwinds, and at others lay almost still and calm.
In spite of their terrible state of anxiety about their missing friends, those on board the vessels could not help gazing in wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the scene. The whole island seemed to be enveloped at times in flames, and to be blowing up, as it were, piecemeal, a bit at a time. In Dr. Vivian's mind every sense of observation, every instinct of the scientist, was aroused by the sight of these phenomena, and for the time he stood looking on, silent and absorbed.
Then warning cries from the look-out men called the attention of the observers to the opposite direction, where Feroutah's fleet had been seen hurrying along, like themselves, by aid of both sails and oars, and buffeted about in the same fashion by the sudden changes in the eddying gusts of wind. The vessels in the distance were now seen to pause in their flight, then turn and come back towards their pursuers—all that is, except three, which continued upon their course. At the same time there rose from their decks quite a swarm—as Sam expressed it—of the "men-birds." There were quite twenty of them, and no one in the pursuing boats, it seemed, had ever seen so many at one time.
"I fear we shall have trouble, my lord, to fight all these," said Teudah to Divonus. "I have never seen so many together before. I knew not that Feroutah possessed so many of those strange flying-dresses."
"Nor I," Divonus growled, in savage anger, "But we heard your man who escaped say that he was sending every one he had against us—even lending his own dress, since he is not coming himself. What we now see confirms it. Well, we will fight them to the death!"
"Alas!" sighed Harry. "Here, it seems to me, is likely to be the toughest fight we have yet been in with these johnnies, and Wilfrid is not here, and we are without anything to meet them with save the bows and arrows and such like arms of the good friends around us. Our 'magic jackets,' our rifles and revolvers—all are gone! The spare firearms we brought with us with so much trouble and bother—even those we cannot now get at; they are carefully locked away with our other stores in Prince Myrola's palace at Raneema."
"Why, as to armour, we have plenty below, my friend, both for you and your companions," Divonus, who had heard Harry's lament, declared. "By all means come with me, and I will fit you out!"
Harry hesitated, but the doctor urged him to accept the offer. He foresaw the sort of assault they were likely to be exposed to from the men-birds, and he had already seen the use and value of armour in such circumstances. He even, by way of example, asked for a suit for himself.
As for Sam, he needed no pressing; and when, a few minutes later, they all returned to the deck armed "cap-à-pie," he was arrayed in a suit which in some respects—especially in regard to its gorgeous, waving plumes—outshone those of his leaders.
By this time the two fleets had drawn close together, and the men-birds were commencing to fire arrows from overhead on to the decks of the Mellopian vessels. Upon these, as it now appeared, metal screens had been erected, beneath which those on deck could take cover. They were shaped like a gabled roof, so as to throw off the missiles, and were furnished with loop-holes, through which the archers fired their arrows in return. A sudden gust of wind swept fiercely, for the space of a few minutes, over the scene of the coming hostilities, and then as suddenly died down again.
Sam laughed as he noticed how the gust had whirled the men-birds about, carrying some of them bodily away for a few hundred yards, in spite of their frantic efforts and violent struggles to maintain their positions against it.
"Jellyfish an' ginger!" he cried. "Them lubbers'ad better take in sail, or run into harbour, it strikes me, or the swabs'll get carried, next time, a bit furder'n they want to go!"
Which remark of honest Sam proved strangely prophetic.
THE rival fleets drew near to one another, and the battle soon began in earnest. Harry and the doctor looked on with a sort of wondering interest. To Harry it had all the attraction of a sea-fight carried out under the very conditions he had so often read about in stories of fights in the old days, hundreds of years ago, before firearms were invented. And it only made him wish more than ever that Wilfrid—still Wilfrid to him, not "Taloma, the son of Sorenza"—could be present to see the fun.
To the doctor the sight was of interest purely from an antiquarian point of view. He had had many arguments with brother savants as to the way in which the navies of ancient Greece and Rome went about their fighting—and now, here, he would be able to determine whether his own theories or those of his opponents in argument were more likely to prove correct.
Harry looked round and counted up the total number of vessels on each side. They were nearly equal, he found, there being thirty-two on his own side, and twenty-nine opposed to them. But then the Feroutians had their men-birds—a very great advantage indeed—to set against their slight numerical inferiority.
For some time each side paid more attention to manoeuvring than to actual fighting. Harry perceived that the men-birds utilized this interval by trying to shoot down the Mellopian helmsmen at critical moments—a feat which in two or three cases they carried out with such success that the vessels the victims had been steering were nearly run down by watchful steersmen upon the other side.
Harry, noting everything that took place, was informed, in answer to his questions, that these manoeuvres sometimes resulted in very considerable tactical advantage to one side or the other; but to-day the wind was so changeful and uncertain that what seemed an advantage one minute became, owing to some sudden change of wind, a distinct disadvantage a few minutes later. In the end these tactics had to be abandoned, as each party found that they were just as likely, on that particular day, to result in detriment to themselves as to their opponents.
Another interval then ensued, during which the vessels passed and repassed, delivering volleys of arrows at each other—a form of fighting, however, which again did very little harm to either party. A certain number of both fighters and rowers on the Mellopian vessels were, however, shot down by the men-birds who hovered about, sometimes above, sometimes at the side of a vessel, shooting, and watching for some opening.
Harry became impatient; they seemed to be losing time. He talked it over with Sam, and found that that stout sailor agreed with him.
"Jib-booms an' lip-salve!" he cried. "Why, Mr. Harry, seems to me these lubbers be all afraid o' one another! Now, if 'twas me——"
Just then an arrow from aloft crashed through honest Sam's sheaf of waving plumes, breaking two, and causing them to hang down in a very unmartial, draggle-tailed sort of fashion. This set the veteran sea-dog choking with indignation. He saw that the arrow had come not from one of "the flying creeturs," as he called them, but from an archer in the maintop of a vessel of the enemy close at hand. In a burst of intense anger Sam pushed the helmsman of the vessel he was on from his place, and ere he or his officers had recovered from their astonishment, he had run the vessel right alongside the offending craft. As it happened, the rigging of the two became jammed, and so they stuck together.
Then Sam left the helm, and, waving a sword in the air, rushed excitedly forward to board the enemy.
"Cables an' gums!" he cried. "We'll teach 'em t' fight! We'll board the pirates! Come on, Mr. Harry! Hurry up, Tom Bennet! Hi! you sirs,"—this to Divonus and the captain of the vessel—"call your fellows forward! Foller me!"
The parties addressed understood, most of them, not a word of all this; but they guessed Sam's intentions from his gestures, and, encouraged by the example of Harry and Bennet, they crowded after them so that the three found themselves, a minute or two later, at the head of a numerous boarding-party, and this they led on at once to the attack. Twice they were beaten back, and Sam was knocked over so that he fell between the two vessels; but Harry and Bennet were beside him and helped him up. For a brief moment he paused to look at his helmet, which had fallen off, ere he replaced it upon his head. To his intense disgust, he perceived that two more of the magnificent plumes were broken.
And then he rose in his wrath and turned upon the foe like a lion let loose. Nothing, no one, seemed able to stand against him. Boiling indignation lent such strength to his arm that the enemy retreated before him in dismay, and wherever he advanced, his faithful friends were to be seen beside him, and behind them, Divonus, Teudah, and the majority of the ship's company. On they all rushed, inspired by Sam's splendid example, and so well did they imitate it that ere long they had cleared three-quarters of the deck before them, and many of their opponents had jumped off into the water, while others had hidden themselves below.
Then, to their surprise, Sam's enthusiastic followers saw him climbing up a mast as nimbly as a monkey. For there he had spotted the daring archer who had first damaged his sheaf of plumes, and amid all the fighting, the repulses and attacks, Sam had kept his eye upon him. And now he meant to be revenged. The archer shot one more arrow at his fierce pursuer, and fled to the upper rigging. But in a race round the masts and ropes he was no match for Sam, and was quickly overtaken.
The pursuit and capture were watched with breathless interest from below; those who had followed him thus far, full of admiration for his pluck and stout fighting qualities, wondering who or what the special enemy could be he had gone aloft to chase and capture. Some well-known captain or leader in disguise, surely, this must be, they thought; some officer of Feroutah, whose capture would be worth a king's ransom!
But whoever he was, Sam was not allowed to bring his prize down to the deck without further interference. Two of the men-birds attacked him at once, and seeing that he was likely to get the worst of it, Harry was about to ascend to his assistance, when the sailor suddenly came down a rope at the run, bringing his prize with him, and leaving his two feathered opponents looking very much astonished and somewhat foolish at his sudden escape from their attentions.
But, encouraged by the pause that had taken place, the beaten crew returned to the charge and endeavoured to rescue the archer from Sam's tenacious grip. One fellow aimed a blow at his head with a sword which would certainly have cut it open—for Sam was too busy at the moment to see it coming—had not Harry parried the cut with his own sword. A moment later the fellow turned on him, and Harry found himself engaged in a cut-and-thrust encounter which entirely fulfilled the wish he had often expressed of taking a part in one of those old-world fights. But his blade was not of such good metal as his courage, for it broke in his hand, and, to save himself from being cut down, he rushed beneath his foe's guard, closed with him, and, taking him by surprise, managed to throw him on the deck. Harry fell uppermost, and a fierce struggle ensued, which was put an end to by a great clamour which arose around them, and a violent rocking of the vessel.
As by mutual consent, the two adversaries rose to their feet and started in different directions to see what had happened. The sky had become covered with strange-looking clouds, which were assuming most curious shapes. In some of them internal currents of air seemed to be whirling round and round in corkscrew fashion, extending the cloud downward in a spiral, so that it would almost touch the surface of the water, or "dip" to within a few feet of it. This phenomenon had already been visible in several different places at once, and it was accompanied by a tumultuous tossing or "boiling" of the water below.
Had Dr. Vivian been sufficiently at leisure to observe all these signs he could have warned those around him that the conditions were exactly such as frequently end in the formation of water-spouts—those wonderful spiral columns of water which reach up into the clouds, and travel along at great speed, dealing destruction to everything that comes in their way.
At the same time, detonations and flashes of light from the burning mountain became more frequent than ever, and the effects could now be perceived even so far away as they then were in the form of sudden gusts of wind, at one moment icily cold, a little later suffocatingly hot, which rushed sometimes from, and sometimes towards, the mountain as a centre.
Meantime, in one direction, their foes had succeeded in carrying out what, as Harry subsequently learned, was their favourite trick, and which was, in fact, the aim they had had in view throughout their manoeuvring. It was to isolate a vessel here and there, close in upon it, and board it on two sides at once. Then the men on board her were hunted into the rigging as game for the men-birds, who hovered around in a crowd, and threw the poor wretches down upon their own deck, or into the water, to become swimming targets for bows and arrows and javelins. All this was accounted good fun by both the Feroutians on the attacking vessels, and the men-birds co-operating with them above; and was always accompanied by shouts of laughter, jeers, and the cracking of jokes.
Such a scene was being enacted a few hundred yards beyond the general crowd of vessels. In some way, Harry perceived, one of the vessels upon his side had become separated and driven apart. She was now surrounded by three of those of the enemy and the whole of the men-birds, and it had been partly the noise made by the attackers and the death-shrieks of the baited and outnumbered defenders that Harry had heard while wrestling with his adversary on the deck. But there was something else. Just as Harry, full of horror and indignation, cast his eyes despairingly round, seekingfor some plan of rescuing the unfortunate survivors, he caught sight of something extraordinary travelling at a rapid rate in the direction of the scene of the fray. A second look was scarcely needed to enable him to guess what it was.
It was a waterspout!
On it came at a great speed, travelling in the direction of the burning mountain, and the group of four vessels seemed to lie almost exactly in its path. Others now saw it, too, and a little later the crowd of men-birds perceived it, and commenced a series of clumsy struggles to fly away clear of it. But they went in the wrong direction, for the whirling, watery column swerved, and passed clear of the vessels, though the agitation of the water around it threatened to capsize them. With a great rushing, roaring sound, it passed on and overtook the crowd of men-birds, which became involved at once in the vortex and were whirled round and round like so many pieces of straw.
And so the column travelled on towards the island, carrying with it these whirling wretches. Just as it neared the island, the burning mountain seemed to open and a hot, flaming cloud burst forth which came down and met the waterspout. There was a terrific crashing roar which deafened the ears even of the far-off spectators, and then everything became blotted out from view by dense masses of steam and smoke.
And that was the last ever seen of the men-birds.
THE terrible tragedy of the fate of the men-birds was witnessed by all on board the rival fleets, producing varying emotions upon the spectators according to their respective sympathies. Upon all it exercised, for a brief space, a paralyzing effect—a sort of temporary stupor. This caused, for a few minutes, an involuntary cessation of hostilities, an informal truce.
Then the battle broke out afresh, and raged with more vigour than before. The Mellopians took heart, knowing that their enemies had lost many of their leaders; and, more than that, they had lost the co-operation of their feathered allies, upon which they were wont to place such reliance.
On the other hand, the Feroutians, when they roused up from their passing lethargy, seemed to be possessed by a feeling of desperation. They were seized with a veritable fighting madness, and recommenced the contest with a ferocity which fairly took their adversaries by surprise, and, for a time, seemed likely to prevail against them through sheer force of savage determination.
Darkness fell—or, rather, night, for the whole scene was, for the most part, still illuminated by the glow from the burning mountain. This waxed and waned, came and went, with the varying violence of the eruption, so that sometimes the contending foes could see each other almost as plainly as if it were still daylight. Then, a few minutes later, the whole murderous turmoil would be plunged into black shadow.
Just after the awful convulsion which sealed the doom of the men-birds, another of the short-lived tempests arose, accompanied by the phenomenon known as a tidal wave, which so frequently attends upon eruptions and earthquakes. It was not, on this occasion, of a very serious character, and passed off without causing much damage among the crowd of vessels. For a while, however, both sides had enough to do to navigate their vessels and keep them from capsizing, and by the time the commotion had passed away, Zyrla and his colleagues had taken their measures to meet the fresh attack and to arouse the warlike instincts of their followers.
They went about from vessel to vessel in small boats, running considerable risks in so doing. But the consequence was that the Mellopians took heart, as has been said, and recommenced the struggle with a spirit fully equal to that of their adversaries.
The strangers amongst them—the worthy doctor, and Harry, Sam, and Bennet—did their share, and more. They completed the capture of the vessel they had boarded, and quickly turned their attention to others. Harry, in fact, had all his dreams of such adventures more than realized, and assisted that night in many deeds of daring.
Thus passed the night, and when the morning came the sun arose upon much the same sort of scene as the one upon which it had set. The mountain was still belching forth fire and smoke, and hurling great rocks upwards with deafening detonations; the air was still full of ashes and dust and heavy sulphurous gases; the two fleets were still fighting; but there were fewer vessels on each side, and fewer fighters to carry on the strife. As to the rest, they had sunk beneath the water of the lake, and would fight no more. And as to the ultimate result, it was still as much in doubt as when darkness had fallen the previous night.
IN the midst of the Great Lake, the Island of Teneabia, Feroutah's stronghold, rose out of the waters—a colossal, desolate mass of forbidding-Iooking rock. Gloomy and sullen in aspect, the place frowned upon the stranger approaching its shores, as though Nature herself had imprinted upon it a warning to avoid them.
Around the whole island there was scarcely a landing place to be found, and but one harbour. Everywhere else around its circumference, the rock, of a black-purple tint, rose perpendicularly out of the lake, and, casting its sombre shadows into the water, formed a series of terraces and precipices grand and terrible in appearance, and such as no ordinary mortal would attempt to scale. At one place a narrow opening between these rocks led into a land-locked lagoon, or natural harbour; and here was the city of Teneabia, the principal town of the country which Feroutah ruled.
At a short distance from this town there was a great amphitheatre in the midst of steep, bare mountains, known as the Great Temple. It was partly natural, partly artificial—that is to say, advantage had been taken of certain of its original features to hew out, through successive generations, terraces and hanging galleries in such fashion that it had come eventually to look like a gigantic hippodrome built by giants.
Its sides were honeycombed with subterranean passages, burrowed in one direction through a mountain to its further side, coming out upon the face of one of the precipices which overhung the waters of the lake. Here, amid chambers and terraces high above the water, lived a race of priests and their devotees, whose chief duties seemed to be to act as gaoler, torturers, and executioners to the unhappy prisoners whom the cruel tyrant Feroutah, from time to time, brought home from his various expeditions amongst the dwellers upon the numerous islands of the lake, or around its margin.
At certain intervals there were "festivals," at each of which some poor wretches were sure to be sacrificed to their deity, the god of fire, otherwise the sun; and on these occasions most of the inhabitants of the city made holiday, and crowded to the Great Temple to enjoy the spectacle provided, and to take part in the processions and ceremonies.
It was to this Temple that Lyondrah—or Sorenza—and his companions were brought by Feroutah on his return from the island where Melienus and his people had dwelt, and which was now doomed to destruction. Feroutah at once set about preparations for the great event of the morrow, when his captives were to be sacrificed by means of the contrivances he had named his "death-cages."
Singling out Myrola, against whom he had long nourished a special enmity, he ordered him to be paraded in the great amphitheatre amongst a number of common prisoners, and in full view of the populace. Thus it came about that the young prince found himself chained to a gang of other captives, marching to and fro in the arena. Around, and on terraces surrounding the arena, people were walking, talking, laughing, dancing, or singing. Here and there a small group of purple-coated soldiers marched about, carrying banners or musical instruments; elsewhere, strings of white-robed priests might be seen and heard, walking in procession and chanting wild dirges.
A feature of these occasions was that every person, when he or she happened to pass one of the gangs of prisoners—there were three in the arena—considered it a matter of duty to give one or other of them a blow with the fist, with a stick, or with the lash of a whip, as fancy might suggest. Bearded priests, of savage, sinister mien, intermingled with the crowd, watching their actions; and these rebuked and threatened any good-natured or careless person who passed close to one of the wretched prisoners without striking him.
Besides all these blows, however, there were guards with whips in charge of the gangs, who kept the weary sufferers ever on the move, using their whips without mercy if they stopped for a rest, or even, as was frequently the case, dropped down from sheer weakness.
A portion of one wide terrace, about eight or ten feet above the arena, was set aside for Feroutah himself, the chief priest, named Zotamis, and their immediate followers, officers, and assistants. Here, upon a dais, were two thrones, with a canopy over them of purple silk, embroidered in gold and precious stones with various figures and devices, amongst which serpents predominated.
Upon one throne was seated Feroutah, looking stern and cruel, while on the other was the High Priest Zotamis, who possessed about as evil-looking a face as mortal perhaps ever bore about with him, surpassing even Feroutah's in its expression of relentless cruelty. In the very centre of the arena something very curious was to be seen. Four ropes rose into the air, and at the end of them, floating and swaying about like captive balloons, were cages of bamboo, each large enough to contain a human being.
Myrola eyed these cages with a glance in which horror was mingled with curiosity. Then he spoke in an undertone to a fellow-captive—a young fellow with a swarthy skin, who should have been handsome but that suffering had hollowed his cheeks and caused his eyes to be sunken and dull.
"So they are the terrible death-cages?" said Myrola.
"Yes. You see that they stay up in the air, and pull and tug at the ropes as though they were anxious to break away and soar up to the skies, instead of falling to the ground as one would expect. That is because at the top of each, pieces of some magic metal are fastened, the effect of which is to carry them upwards to the skies. It is said that the metal came from the sun, and returns to the sun, carrying with it the victim shut up in the cage. And thus, the priests say, they send their sacrifice straight up to the sun itself."
The speaker shuddered as he made this answer; and then he started as some one passing aimed a blow at him.
"Have you seen any one sent up in one?" Myrola asked; and as he put the question he shivered at the gruesome vision it called up.
"Truly have I—several," replied the other, with another shudder. "But a week ago they had a fête day like this, and I was walking beside one as I am with you now. Suddenly Zotamis pointed at my unfortunate companion, whereupon some other priests came up and unchained him. Then he was bound and carried to one of the cages which swung and swayed at the end of cords as you see those to-day. It was pulled to the ground, he was bundled into it; then it was fastened up, and rose again to the end of the rope. Then there was much chanting and banging of drums and cymbals, till Zotamis gave a signal, when the rope was loosed, and the cage sailed straight up into the air, carrying my poor friend inside. I watched it till it was a mere speck in the distance, and it seemed to be going—as they say is the case—straight to the sun itself. They sent up two more that day."
Before Myrola could make any comment upon this tale of horror, he was roughly separated from his companions in misfortune and marched back into the dungeon in which his friends were confined. Why the latter had not been paraded in the arena as he had been, he wondered greatly, but finally came to the conclusion that Feroutah entertained some fears that Lyondrah might find sympathizers and supporters amongst the populace.
He found, in the dungeon with his friends, some half-dozen other unhappy prisoners, and one of these—whose name he afterwards found was Taldah—came forward at his entrance, and addressed him.
"What is going on outside?" he asked. "In here one hears continual rumblings. It has been so for the last twenty-four hours."
Just then Wilfrid, who had been conversing apart with Lyondrah and the others, came up to greet Myrola, and heard the question.
"It must be an earthquake," Wilfrid explained. "It is quite possible—even likely—that the volcanic eruption which we know is taking place elsewhere may be accompanied by earthquakes in the islands nearest to it."
"I don't like it," Taldah declared, with a shiver. "It makes you fear that the rocks will fall upon you. Nay, we have even heard terrible crashes, which sounded very much as though some great boulders had actually fallen from the mountains above."
"I shouldn't be surprised. We saw them thrown about like marbles in the island we have just come from," Wilfrid answered.
Even as he spoke the rumbling was heard again; the whole chamber in which they were shut up quivered and shook, cut out, though it was, in the solid rock. Then came three or four deafening crashes, as though immense masses of stone had fallen near at hand. This noise was followed by a dead silence, which was succeeded in turn by the sound of scurrying feet, and cries and shrieks of fright.
Taldah shivered again, and turned very pale.
"I wish we could get out of here," he said. "I should not care where we went so long as it was in the open. It is terrible to think that the passages leading to this place may be blocked up by these falling rocks, and we may be buried and left to die like rats in a hole!"
While this talk was going on between the younger prisoners, Sorenza—to give him his rightful name, and the one by which he was henceforth to be known—was conferring with Melienus.
"Ah, how shortsighted of me to have come away without those weapons of mine which I alone know the secret of!" Melienus sighed. "Had I but had these with me I could have annihilated Feroutah and all his crew without danger to ourselves."
"It is useless to waste time in regrets," returned his companion. "The question is—what are we to do now? Can we not form some plan? Could we not rush the guard? And if we succeeded thus far, have you no following among these people here? Is there no one who would take your part against Feroutah and his gang?"
Melienus shook his head.
"There are, doubtless, some—a few—who would raise a hand for me; but they are of no use among so many," said he. "Nevertheless, I will think about it and watch those who come in to us, and it may be that something may suggest itself."
But nothing came of their talk; and the night passed without anything further occurring worthy of note, save two or three repetitions of the earthquake shocks.
When morning came, Sorenza, who had had no sleep through the night, and had passed the time pacing to and fro like a caged lion, grew desperate.
"I am not of a nature to wait patiently to let my enemies do as they please with me," he exclaimed to Melienus. "And here is my son—so long lost and now but newly recovered—and shall I sit with folded hands and see him murdered before my eyes? No! A thousand times no! Better far to fight, to struggle, and to die a soldier's death in the fray than that of a condemned felon! Have you no friends amongst these other priests here, Melienus?"
"Far from it, King Sorenza. They are my rivals, and hate me as much as—as—well, nearly as much as I scorn and despise them," Melienus answered, with a flashing eye. "You have been long away, King Sorenza, and know little as yet of all that has gone on during your absence. Let me, therefore, inform yon that I have taken no part in these detestable cruelties which Feroutah and Zotamis and the others have delighted in. I have remained aloof in my own country with my own people. We had, it is true, passed a law that all strangers who came into our island should be put to death: but that was for purposes of self-defence only.
"Feroutah came to me seeking to be taught certain of my secrets of science, and in return supplied us regularly with food, for our island is all rock, and nothing will grow there. It was from me that he learned how to procure the strange metal which flies up into the air, and how to make coats of mail of it, and so control its powers as to be able to rise or fall in the air at will; also, by taking advantage of the magnetic and electric currents of the air, to move about even against a light wind. At my suggestion, too, he added to this the feathered dress, and practised, with his chief officers, long and perseveringly, until they were able, in some measure, to imitate the flight of birds.
"All these and many other things did Feroutah learn from me. I had, however, some other secrets of which he knew, which I steadily refused to impart to him."
"Such as those wonderful arrows which were fired at us, and threw us into a state of insensibility, I suppose?" Wilfrid put in.
"Ay, lad, ay. I refused to teach Feroutah these things because I saw that he had not put those which I had already taught him to any good use. One thing I was resolved upon—that Feroutah should never lord it over my tribe as he did over those others; therefore, I told him only such things as I chose, and kept him in ignorance of some of my greatest discoveries. But that very fact, you perceive, has made his priests here my enemies, and not my friends."
At that moment one of the captives stole cautiously up to Sorenza and slipped a piece of parchment into his hand.
"This has been pushed under the door, lord," he whispered, "and I think it is meant for you!"
SORENZA took the parchment and read it. Then he moved aside into the corner farthest from the door, beckoning his son and the priest to follow him.
"This is a message," he said in a low tone, full of suppressed excitement, "from one Mondro, a captain of the soldiers here. He has a cousin named Tardah, it seems, who has joined hands with Zyrla, and from him this Mondro has heard about me, and is ready to devote himself to my service. He has gained over a few others also, and they are ready to risk their lives in trying to save us. It is but a slender chance, I am afraid; yet even to gain delay——"
"Ay, ay; let us gain time if it be possible," muttered Melienus. "I know this Mondro and his cousin, too—worthy fellows both of them. We may be sure that Samanda and Zyrla will hasten hither to our aid as fast as their ships can sail."
"If they can clear Feroutah's fleet out of the way first," said Sorenza, soberly. "Yet, if it offers us a chance of being able to evade Feroutah and his murdering crew for no more than a few hours, it is welt worth the trial."
"Ay, ay. What is the plan?"
"Mondro, it seems, is to be in command of the company of soldiers who will be sent to take us out to execution. He will direct our present guard to bind our arms. To do this they must put down their weapons, then Mondro and his company will fall upon them and bind them instead, and we are to help all we can. He says he can rely upon all his own men."
"And then?" Melienus asked.
"Ah, then! I know not what his plan may be. We must wait to be told until the first part of the scheme succeeds,"
The rest of the morning was given up to discussing the prospects before them, and settling the precise part to be filled by each one. Restless and eager as they had now become, the time seemed to drag on with intolerable slowness. But at last, when it wanted but an hour to noon, the clank and jingle of armed men was heard outside the door of the dungeon, and a minute later the door swung open, and displayed to view two small companies of purple-coated soldiers. One of these groups comprised the guards who had brought them to the place, and who had visited them several times during the night. The other and larger party were a fresh detachment. The captain in charge of these last, a tall, soldierly-looking man, strode into the chamber, and after looking over the prisoners, and seeming to tick them off from a list he held in his hand, he turned back and addressed the officer of the guard.
"The number seems to be correct," said Mondro—for he it was—gruffly. "Bind them all, and give them into the charge of my men."
The one addressed seemed inclined to demur to this, but apparently thought better of it. The prisoners, in anticipation, had already ranged themselves in a row, Sorenza and his colleagues being farthest from the door. The officer of the guard called out the names, giving out first those at the other end of the row,
"Tush! Am I to be kept here all day?" grumbled the captain. "Hurry up, there! I shall get into trouble, if matters go on as slowly as this. Here, put down those playthings, and go and help the others," he called out, roughly, to others of the guard, who were looking on.
Fearing further bullying, and perhaps blows, if they stood idle any longer, the men addressed threw aside their spears and pikes and went to aid in the binding. And then the new-comers sprang upon them and seized them, and a desperate struggle ensued. The officer of the guard had already put out a hand to pass his rope round Sorenza, when the prisoner caught him and passed the rope round his own arms instead, and that so quickly and dexterously that the man could offer no resistance at all. The next moment he lay on the ground helpless, with the point of his own sword held at his throat.
"Take this pike and watch my captive for me till he has been securely bound," said Sorenza to Myrola. And, handing the youth a pike which he had picked up from the ground, he turned to see how the others were faring.
Wilfrid had followed his sire's example, and had nearly succeeded in reducing to submission the man who had approached him, when two others sprang upon him from opposite sides. They had put aside their pikes, but each drew a dagger from his belt, and raised it to strike him in the back. Wilfrid was engaged in holding his man, and could not see what the two cowardly assailants were doing behind him. Myrola, however, saw, and uttered a cry of warning; but he was too far away to give any aid, and it seemed as though nothing could save his friend.
Another cry was heard, however—not a loud one, but something which resembled rather the growling roar of a lion as he leaps upon his foe; and the next moment the two men were struggling in Sorenza's iron grasp. With one hand upon the throat of each, he brought them together with a shock that must have been heard far away; then he cast them from him, and they fell to the floor, and remained there, without moving.
Two others now rushed upon the victor—two who had kept their spears in their hands—and they seemed on the point of running him through, when Wilfrid caught up a fallen pike on one side, while Myrola rushed in with his upon the other. They threw up the threatening spears, and Sorenza, darting in, seized one and wrenched it from the hands of the holder.
A second later the two were sprawling on the floor beside their companions, stunned by crushing blows on the head from the butt-end of the captured spear.
"'Tis well, lord!" said Mondro, addressing Sorenza. "I and my men have accounted for all the rest. Now to make all sure by binding the legs of these fellows and putting gags in their mouths."
"See, lord "—and he called to some of his men outside—"here is some armour for yourself and your friends. Put it on, while we finish tying up our men. We shall have to fight hard yet before we get away, and you will be glad of it."
"Well thought of, friend Mondro," Sorenza responded. "But have you, then, any large enough for me?"
"Look at it, my lord," said he. "You should know that armour, methinks. It has been locked away for many a year; but I thought it time it was used again now. Therefore I brought it with me."
"My father's suit of armour!" Sorenza exclaimed, as his eyes fell upon it. "Truly, you have well spoken, friend. It is fitting that I should wear it on this day, which seems destined either to be my last on earth or——"
"Or the first of your reign, King Sorenza!" put in the officer. "It won't be through any fault of mine if it is not. But it is fitting, as you say, that you should wear that suit; and methought it might be good policy, too, since many of the people will recognize it, and will think twice before raising a hand against their lawful king."
"Ay, ay; you have acted wisely," Melienus agreed, coming forward. "Many will remember to have seen the great and wise King Amondah in that armour, and will almost think he has come back to life to reprove and punish them for submitting for so long to the usurper."
A few minutes later, and all those for whom suits of armour had been brought had donned them, and then Wilfrid could not repress an exclamation of admiration as he looked upon his father. The armour was of gold, exquisitely inlaid and set with precious stones, with a great sword, such as few other men could have wielded.
There was no time for further talk or explanation. Mondro led the way, the late prisoners following, and the rest of the soldiers bringing up the rear. Amongst the latter, Wilfrid noticed, were many archers as well as pikemen. For a while, their route lay through galleries cut through the rock, and up many flights of stairs. And then a man met them. He was out of breath, as though he had been running.
"How now, Carbis?" cried Mondro. "What is the matter?"
"Bad news, captain," the man replied—"about as bad as it can well be! From the harbour the fleet has been sighted, and the cry there is that Feroutah's ships are coming back triumphant, bringing with them most of the Mellopian vessels, with all their crews prisoners. They have signalled that much, it seems, and I have run all the way to bring you the tidings. And, further, to warn you that Feroutah has sent another guard here to see why you have tarried so long. The people are becoming impatient."
Even as he spoke, the tramp of armed men was heard, and at the next comer they came face to face with another company of soldiers.
"We must cut our way through them," Mondro cried to those behind them. And the brave fellow rushed impetuously forward, sword in hand.
Sorenza was alongside him in a moment, and then followed a short, noisy fight. The dash of arms was heard on all sides, and mingled with it the shouts and cries of the combatants as they struggled for mastery in the narrow gallery.
For a brief space the result hung in the balance; but in the end the fugitives forced their way through by sheer strength and dash, and Wilfrid and Myrola felt themselves borne along just behind their leaders. It almost seemed as though their enemies had purposely made way for them.
The fact was, however, the sight of Sorenza in the suit of armour which many there knew had belonged to their former sovereign, and the cries of "Make way for the King!" had so surprised the hostile party, that at first they made but a feeble resistance. Sorenza, too, made his great sword play amongst some who plucked up courage to oppose him in a manner that speedily led them to obey the command to "Make way for the King!" But when the little company had passed, the others recovered from their astonishment, and set off to follow them.
Suddenly, as the two groups were thus running, a thunderous roar was heard, the whole mountain seemed to rock and sway, and there came the crash of falling stones.
At that moment the leaders had emerged from the gallery into an outside terrace or balcony, which ran along the face of the cliff overlooking the amphitheatre. Just below it the "death-cages" were swinging in the wind, and Feroutah and his priests and myrmidons, with an impatient, excited crowd, were awaiting their intended victims.
Mondro had not intended to come this way, but had been turned aside by catching sight of other soldiers in the gallery he had been making for. And now he paused suddenly, and gazed in dismay at the sight that met his startled eyes. An avalanche of rock had fallen in front of them and completely blocked the road; so that he had, in fact, led his friends into a cul de sac. And even while they stood staring helplessly at this sight, there was a sullen, booming roar behind them, and another avalanche fell upon the terrace, completely blocking the road which led that way also.
THE terrace upon which the fugitives now found themselves shut in was some twenty or thirty feet above the arena where the impatient crowd were waiting, wondering at the delay in bringing forth the four victims.
Looking over the top of a low wall, the fugitives could see, across the heads of the restless crowd, Feroutah and Zotamis, seated upon their thrones, under their resplendent canopies of purple and gold. And above and beyond these, again, there was a clear view of the distant harbour and the waters of the lake. In the extreme distance, banks of dark, heavy clouds, hanging over the horizon, marked the direction in which lay the burning mountain, and showed that the eruption was still in progress.
Sorenza and his friends took note of all these details, and then turned once more to look upon the great masses of rock which shut them off completely on both sides. With the humane idea of ascertaining if any helpless foes were lying crushed under the stones, and trying to aid them if there were, Sorenza and Wilfrid stepped aside and examined the mass. But it was quickly seen that nothing could be done to aid any unfortunate creature who might be there, for it would have taken a large gang of men many days to have moved away a sufficient quantity to have got at any one lying beneath.
Satisfied that nothing could be done, the two turned their attention again to the scene below. A small group of soldiers had just approached Feroutah, and were talking hurriedly.
"It looks to me as though they are carrying him the news of what has happened," Wilfrid observed. "As usual in such cases, they are all talking at once, and I doubt not each one is giving a different version."
Just then Feroutah glanced up, and caught sight of the group of fugitives standing looking down upon him over the wall at the edge of the terrace. His eyes ranged from one to the other; he saw his own officers and soldiers among the captives; and then, for the first time, he perceived Sorenza in his suit of golden armour.
Very imposing and majestic he looked, leaning slightly upon the hilt of his great sword, his giant figure towering above those around him, and the waving plume upon his helmet making him appear even taller than he really was.
Following the direction of Feroutah's startled gaze, first the priests, and then the rest of the crowd turned and looked at him. For a space a dead silence fell upon the whole throng, and they gazed in wondering inquiry upon the figure standing there motionless, returning their looks with stem, calm dignity. The likeness to their former King Amondah, however, was apparent to many of those present, and it caused them to utter the name involuntarily in awe-struck accents. Others, to whom the name was well known, though they had never seen the bearer of it, repeated the word in amazement, and for a while some thought that the dead king actually stood before them. Even Feroutah and his priests seemed at first to be of the same opinion. Then, recovering from his astonishment, he ordered his soldiers to seize all those on the terrace, and bring them, bound, before him.
It took some little time to make the exact position clear to him. He would not believe that the terrace could not be approached from the inside gallery, until he had himself gone into the passage, and spent some minutes in frantically attempting to open a way through the fallen rock. Finding this useless, and also that nothing could be done from above, owing to the fact that the cliff overhung the terrace, he returned to the arena, and ordered his soldiers to climb up the rock and take the terrace by storm.
This again proved to be a futile proceeding. The men could not climb up the face of the rock, and the longest ladders they brought were too short. Showers of arrows were sent on to the terrace, but against these the low wall afforded a sufficient shield. Mondro wished for his archers to reply to them, but Sorenzo bade him reserve what arrows they had, in case they should be more urgently required later on.
Meantime, the populace were evidently divided in opinion. Some still cried out in favour of Feroutah, but others called out "Amondah!" And now could be heard, in addition, "Sorenza, son of Amondah!" which showed that the actual identity of the strange figure in the dead king's suit of armour was becoming known.
"Alas! Now is the time when Zyrla and his friends could find sympathizers if they were but here!" said Melienus. "But, instead, it must even be as the messenger declared to us, for I can see the fleet—or some of it—now entering the harbour. On every vessel there is either a purple flag, or one purple and one orange—the orange flying below the purple, thus denoting a captured Mellopian ship. What is there to be done? We cannot stay here for ever! They will starve us out, even if they do not find some way to attack us successfully."
"Certainly our case looks desperate," Sorenza admitted. "There seems little left for us to do save to sell our lives as dearly as possible. I could wish it had been otherwise—not so much for my own sake, for I do not covet wealth or power—but for the sake of you others—for the sake of these sorely oppressed peoples—and, not least, for the sake of my son, so lately restored to me!"
He gazed affectionately at Wilfrid, and there was a sad, wearied look in his eyes, and a tremor in his voice as he finished.
Wilfrid, however, happened to be looking another way, and did not perceive his father's troubled glance.
"Why," he exclaimed, "whatever are those johnnies up to now? Is Feroutah going up to the sun in his own death-cage?"
The explanation of this remark was that Feroutah was desirous of making some use of the four cages, which were swaying about at the end of ropes to assist another attack upon his foes. His idea was to put archers into them, and manoeuvre them so that the occupants could shoot down upon the terrace from just above it. The difficulty was that no coaxings or threats could induce any of his people to enter the dreaded cages. In despair, he declared he would take a bow and arrows, and make the attempt in one himself; and ordered his officers to make a simultaneous attack with all the men they could muster.
The idea was well-conceived, and the attack which followed turned out to be a very critical and dangerous one to the devoted occupants of the terrace.
Feroutah made cunning and skilful use of the advantages which his cage offered. No doubt he regretted now that he had not one of his feather dresses at hand—nor had he, as it turned out, any of the "magic pebbles" or snake-stones. He had no means, therefore, of controlling the ascending properties of the cage, but was entirely dependent upon the manipulation of his assistants below. Shielded by screens from possible arrows, he not only harassed the defenders with bow and arrow, but took up ropes and fixed them in such manner as to assist the attackers in climbing the rock.
At the end of a little time, they effected a lodgment at one end of the terrace, and from that moment the fate of the devoted band seemed sealed. In vain did they fight with the desperation of men who had nothing left to hope for save to die fighting. In vain did Sorenza perform mighty deeds of valour, seizing their assailants in his arms and hurling them over the wall into the arena below. One by one, two by two, the knot of enemies on the terrace itself was added to, and step by step the defenders were forced back. Almost every one had received wounds of one kind or another—some slight, some serious—while two forms were lying motionless on one side—one of the two being their brave friend Mondro,
But, just as matters seemed to have reached a climax, and the assailants were preparing for a rush which should end the conflict, there came a strange diversion.
With loud shouts and cries, apparently of triumph, a large number of purple-coated soldiers and sailors came running into the amphitheatre. It was understood that they were the victors who had returned in the fleet, and they seemed to be almost crazy with excitement and delight.
Dancing, gesticulating, yelling wildly, throwing their arms about, this noisy crew swarmed everywhere. Some seemed absolutely to have gone mad. They embraced the men who were climbing up to reinforce those attacking the terrace, and in the exuberance of their joy pulled down the ropes which had been fastened with so much trouble, bringing down whole strings of climbers, some of whom were badly hurt in consequence. They clambered on to the low terrace, where were the thrones of Feroutah and Zotamis, and from there they crowded into the centre, and hustled even the three chief priests themselves as they stood directing those who managed the rope which held the death-cage Feroutah was in.
And then what exactly happened no one seemed quite to know. Whether these excited victors interfered with the fastening of the rope, or the one in charge, in his surprise, forgot the importance of his duty, no one could at the time clearly understand. All that is certain is that there arose, upon a sudden, an outcry which drowned even the clamour of the new-comers. It was succeeded by a deep silence, which lasted but a few seconds. Then followed a single cry—a terrible, blood-curdling shriek—from the occupant of the death-cage in the air. Another, and yet another awful shriek came from him, and then his further cries were drowned in the uproar which arose from the whole throng as they saw the cage sailing swiftly up towards the sun, carrying Feroutah with it!
But that was not all. In the midst of the tumult which ensued, the three priests were hustled into the remaining cages, the ropes loosened, and the three wretches sent to join their partner in so many hateful cruelties.
For the victorious crews were not what they appeared to be. They were the Mellopians, who had, after all, beaten their opponents, captured their fleet, and then disguised themselves in their clothes. By this ruse they had been enabled to get into the harbour and penetrate, in their noisy fashion, and thanks partly to the general excitement attending the attack on the terrace, into the amphitheatre itself without being discovered.
Once there, Zyrla and Samanda quickly grasped the position, and decided upon prompt and stern measures. The peculiar state of affairs gave them the opportunity to inflict upon Feroutah and his three most guilty confederates the same terrible death that they had meted out to so many others. And they determined to take advantage of it.
Terrible as was the vengeance thus exacted, it turned out to be the quickest and therefore probably the most humane method that could have been adopted for settling everything and averting further bloodshed.
Instead of a long and sanguinary civil war, such as must certainly have ensued before Feroutah could have been finally overthrown, the matter was here decided in a few minutes; for his followers were so entirely demoralized at what had taken place that they made no sort of attempt to prolong the war. They gave in at once, Sorenza was acclaimed King of Mellopia and "Lord of the Isles" then and there, and no one said him nay.
"Said I not," murmured the wounded Mondro, when he had been brought back to consciousness by the tender ministrations of Wilfrid and Dr. Vivian—"said I not, my lord, that this should be the first day of your reign?"
Sorenza smiled, and pressed his hand.
"Wait until you are well again, friend," he returned with emotion, "and then you shall become the commander of my little army!"
"AND so the island has gone! The country that was my home for so many years has sunk beneath the waters of the lake!"
Thus spoke Melienus.
"It is even so," answered Teudah. "We have gone over the whole neighbourhood diligently, and searched everywhere, but not a trace is left. The whole island has completely disappeared, and with it the great whirlpool, which used to be such a terror to sailors in those parts."
"Ay!" added Wilfrid, ruefully, "and with it all chance of obtaining those supplies of 'Moradium' which we came out here to seek; and our 'magic jackets,' and every scrap of the metal, as well as the feathered dresses and the magic carpet which we captured from Feroutah—all have gone! In Feroutah's own home even, not a scrap was to be found, though we searched high and low."
"He kept everything of that kind, except what he required for immediate use, at my place," returned Melienus, "and so everything has been lost together,"
"I found this floating on the water near where the island used to be," said Teudah.
And he produced from his pocket a small egg-shaped mass of ore.
"Why, it is another 'black nugget'!" exclaimed Wilfrid and Harry together.
"But a very little one," Harry added, eyeing it with a comical mixture of expressions upon his face.
"And that is all there is to take back to Professor Moray!" said Dr. Vivian. "How disappointed he will be!"
"Salmon an' cinnamon!" exclaimed Sam. "No more trips through the air! I was lookin' forrard t' bein' cap'n, one o' these 'ere days, of a A1 clipper hair-ship."
"Why ye couldn't even manage a balloon!" growled Tom Bennet, contemptuously.
"Why not?" Sam demanded.
"Cause ye'd be allus carryin' too much gas, an' ye'd bust it," was the hunter's scornful answer.
It was a month after the events related above that this talk took place. The scene was Prince Myrola's palace at Raneema, where all the friends had assembled to complete preparations for the return of Dr. Vivian to England, with Harry and Wilfrid. For the latter was going to try to bring out to his new home the kindly professor who had for so many years been to him everything that a father could be.
The island, as Teudah stated, had completely disappeared. It had, probably, in Dr. Vivian's opinion, at one time been thrown up from the bed of the lake by volcanic action. And now, as often happens in similar cases, a volcanic eruption had plunged it back again in its old position. And with it had been carried away all its stores of "Moradium" save the small nugget of ore which had been found floating on the surface of the water. And this, as it happened, was practically all the explorers had to show, so far as the original object of their long and adventurous journey was concerned.
But Wilfrid did not pay his intended visit to England after all; for before he could start he received word that the kind-hearted professor had passed away. The news was brought by some of Inanda's Indians. A letter had been sent up from the coast with a promise of a liberal reward if it were delivered to the travellers. So a party of adventurous bucks had set out on the trail of their chief, and after many delays and much wandering, they at last arrived at Raneema with the letter and delivered it to their chief. Inanda handed it to the doctor, who broke the news to Wilfrid.
Wilfrid therefore remained with his father in Mellopia, the acknowledged heir to the throne, and the intimate friend and chum of their neighbour Prince Myrola, now restored to his rightful kingdom.
Wilfrid and Myrola both accompanied their friends a good part of the way on their journey to the coast, pressing upon them, at parting, presents which made them wealthy for life. And in this distribution neither honest Sam Staunton, nor gruff, but faithful, Tom Bennet was omitted.
Harry hopes, after a while, to pay his chum another visit; and meantime he is studying all he can learn about submarines and diving-bells. He has an idea that it might be worth while to explore the bed of the Great Lake where the lost island had sunk. And he may yet be heard of, perhaps, as the leader of another adventurous party of Radium-Seekers.
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